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“Anxiety is the biggest issue at the moment”: Tackling men’s mental health

Alice Lolohea | Reporter/Director/Videographer

Men’s Health Month drew to a close this week. While the campaign seeks to raise awareness of preventable health problems, mental health has become a key focus for some our Pacific community figures. Alice Lolohea spoke with Pasifika men who are finding different ways to create open conversations about mental health.

Digital Creative Isoa Kavakimotu is in the midst of as extraordinary journey. “I think something people don’t tell you about changing your health is that it has a knock on effect on everything else,” he muses.

“Mentally, I’ve realised that I’m a bit more resilient, because I was really suffering from really bad bouts of depression, burnout, really bad anxiety attacks.”

“Since making the gym a constant consistent thing, those episodes have kind of gone down a little bit.”

Isoa has spent most of his life battling with mental and physical health issues. But it took a serendipitous meeting with a New Japan Pro Wrestling superstar for Isoa to finally take the first step towards a healthier life.

It was during a dinner with his bosses that Simi Fale, aka The Rogue General, remembers being approached by Isoa.

“This big guy walks over and says, ‘Oh, I know who you are. Can I take a photo?'”

“He knew about me from wrestling and stuff. I did realize the size and, you know, having my own struggles with my own weight, I suggested to him, one day come over and see if we can help each other.”

From their initial meeting, the founder of Fale Dojo knew much of Kavakimotu’s health issues weren’t only physical, but mental as well.

“When I see somebody who’s obese or overweight, I know exactly what’s going on, because I know it’s not the appearance; it’s what’s going on up here,” Fale says pointing to his head.

“I get emotional because, you know, I go through the same things – you know, our bodies reflect our mental state.”

“First and foremost, what we try to do is encourage him mentally, to see what he can achieve or become. And then the training comes after.”

Isoa Kavakimotu (right) visits the Fale Dojo three times a week to "exorcise [his] demons"
Isoa Kavakimotu (right) visits the Fale Dojo three times a week to “exorcise [his] demons”
Last year a Massey University survey found that Māori, Pacific and Asian populations were disproportionately affected by the Covid pandemic. South Seas Healthcare Clinician Cherry Elisaia says the rise in anxiety prevents people from seeking help.

“Anxiety is the biggest issue that we’re seeing at the moment. And I think that’s all the impact of the Covid pandemic with loss of income, loss of jobs,” says Elisaia.

“[Some of] the other reasons for them not seeking healthcare in a primary healthcare setting would be transport – money is always an issue.”

“You know, they might be a bit anxious to come back to the clinic because they owe money.”

Elisaia is part of a team which travels around the community in a mobile clinic, providing a variety of free healthcare checks to vulnerable communities. As part of Men’s Health Month, they teamed up with Wise Guys, a men’s refuge and community housing project, and BTB Barbers to offer a range of free services for Wise Guys residents.

“We thought it was fitting because of all the anxiety we’re seeing,” says Elisaia.

“A lot of the residents there are Pacific and Māori background. And we know with anxiety and being on the brink of homelessness there will come some underlying medical issues that they might be going through. So it’s just a matter of going to a comfortable environment.”

“[Our] BTB Barbers made the men feel like a million bucks. You just had to be there to see the smiles on their face. It just meant the world to them.”

The South Seas Mobile Clinic together with some of the Wise Guys residents
The South Seas Mobile Clinic together with some of the Wise Guys residents  PHOTO: South Seas Healthcare FB

For Mental Health advocate and fashion enthusiast Rob Gaitau, growing up in a strict Christian household meant he never quite knew how to process his emotions as a child.

“I was quite naughty, outside of my home environment. At home, I was one person, and then would go to school and get in trouble from the teachers, get in trouble with other kids, like fighting and just silly stuff like that.

“But as we all know, if you put a lid on a boiling pot, this is going to blow off.”

“But that was only way that I knew how to express how I was feeling. I was just going to beat someone up or like, you know, attempt to anyway.”

A little over three years ago, Gaitau was professionally diagnosed with anxiety and depression. But through the support of friends and family, and his new found Muslim faith, Gaitau began to heal.

“I’d kind of become close with a few high-profile athletes. I just saw how they were in the public eye and how they held themselves in front of their family members and all that kind of stuff. And I said hey, I want to be content like that. Like, how do I get there?”

“We’d go for coffee catch-ups and lunches and stuff like that. They’ll never force it on me, but I’d always probe. I would always ask questions like, oh, you know, in religion why do you guys do this? Or why do you guys do that?”

“And then for them to hear the answers and just to see how they were was just something that I knew that I needed to have. I knew it would help me become a better person, become a better husband, a father to my kids, and a better son and a grandson.”

Combining his love of fashion with his mental health advocacy, Gaitau created his own clothing line, Ballsy. It’s his tool to start meaningful conversations on mental health and well being.

Gaitau says, “We just wanted to do something a bit different. You know, I think there’s been a lot of advocates for mental health at the moment, and sometimes it can feel like the same message is being pushed over and over.”

“I think that’s a massive part of this calling and me doing Ballsy is my willingness to be vulnerable. And I don’t care what people think of me now. I had the stigma of having depression and anxiety and I’ve got the stigma of being a Pacific Muslim, like it is what it is, man.”

“We’re here to try and create a space and to try and create garments that are used as icebreakers, so we can have those conversations and to try and not let any more of our people go through the struggle.”

Rob Gaitau uses his clothing line, Ballsy as an icebreaker into conversations about mental health
Rob Gaitau uses his clothing line, Ballsy as an icebreaker into conversations about mental health

It’s a struggle which Kavakimotu continues experience, although the Fale Dojo has become his place to exorcise his demons. He’s also created an impressive TikTok diary, keeping himself accountable by sharing his workouts and musings of his progress.

Kavakimotu has also unexpectedly found himself an international online following, catching the attention of Hollywood and sporting heavyweights.

“I saw on the ESPN Sportscenter one, I saw Scottie Pippin had commented. I was like, woah! I only grew up idolizing this man!”

“And then I read the comments [from] Kevin Hart. Wow. That means we’re one step away from the Rock,” he laughs.

“Since coming here, I’ve lost 45 kilos, and it’s such a weird thing. This is how I think about it. 45 kilos. That’s 90 blocks of butter. That’s how I think on my weight loss.”

“But the biggest thing is just a painstakingly, slow progress. But it’s better to move an inch forward than to stay in the same place or take two steps back. That’s how I look at it.”

Quotes have been edited for clarity and length. 

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