By Erica Lee
One year ago, the Psychiatric Survivors Association (PSA) embarked on a national campaign working with villages and rural communities to identify mental health champions.
Through this campaign, Caring Community Watch Zones were established in Sigatoka, Levuka and Vanuabalavu in Lau. In these zones, mental health community champions were provided with training to help them better understand mental health, its treatment and how to identify early signs of psycho-social disabilities.
Funded by the Australian Government through the Fiji Women’s Fund, the programme aims to help destigmatise and promote the proactive management of mental health in Fiji.
According to PSA Executive Director Sera Osbourne, the programme addresses and manages the lack of services and facilities available to support psychiatric or mental health patients.
“Often the struggles of our members and those who are still undiagnosed are misunderstood by the community. This stigma leads to victimisation and abuse of those who cannot defend themselves especially when they are not in control of their illness.”
She added that with the difficulties of COVID-19 movement restrictions, Community Champions had played a crucial role in ensuring the well-being of some of the most remote members who also lacked access to important government announcements.
“Through the programme, we are seeing greater participation from communities in referrals of instances of abuse and this has led to quick action to ensure that perpetrators of the abuse are apprehended and reported to authorities. We can see the positive impact it’s having on our members and we hope to extend the watch zones to more communities around Fiji,” she said.
The role of caring community champions
PSA describes mental health champions as first responders who look after the well-being and safety of its registered members living in rural villages/communities. Champions are taught to identify signs and symptoms of psycho-social disabilities especially for community members who may be undiagnosed. Their role would be to notify PSA who through the Ministry of Health, provides an appropriate doctor to make an assessment and provide treatment and other forms of support.
Champions pay weekly visitations to PSA members in their homes and provide support such as personal grooming and hygiene, cleaning their homes and also ensure that they are taking their medications. They also help them development non-medicated coping strategies such as farming.
In times of disaster, champions ensure that PSA members placed in their care are well informed, prepared and if the need arises are also evacuated with the rest of the community.
Sera says that there have been a few instances where PSA members have been restrained in a police station cell for their own safety and the safety of the community.
“Due to the lack of facilities to treat and assist our members especially those in rural areas who have had a psychotic episode, the champions play a critical role in ensuring that their well-being and human rights are upheld. They ensure that they are provided food, access to their medication and that they are treated with dignity,” she added.
Psychiatric Survivors Association of Fiji (PSA) is a disability organisation under the umbrella of the Fiji Disabled Peoples Federation. Started in 2004, the organisation provides support to individuals with psycho-social disabilities such as peer support, advocacy, access to justice, and the protection of human rights.