Wesley Mauafu is passionate about helping Pasifika young people, whether fighting high suicide rates or inspiring them to have a voice in politics.

Last week he was invited to Parliament to receive a NZ Youth Award for his work. He spoke to Gabrielle Stuart

Why is the issue of suicide so important to you personally?

It started four years ago, when I did my first suicide prevention training. I went as a fresh-faced young guy, and to be honest, I was so oblivious to the horrific statistics of my own Pasifika young people.

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They have so much potential and so much to give to the community as a whole, so when I found out we were perishing and struggling with our well-being it hit home a lot. From that day, every time I have seen a programme or initiative aimed at well-being, I am always keen to put my hand up and say yes, let's do this.

Our group, PYLET, is the council for Pacific Youth Leadership and Transformation. Through this, we are seriously saving Pasifika young people's lives. That's the motivation for me.

Do you approach things differently when you're working specifically with Pasifika youth?

I definitely think we do. It's little things like understanding our values. We're brought up in our family environment with fa'aaloalo, which is the Samoan word for respect, and tautua, which means service.

So service comes into the community work that we do, and respect means respecting our elders. Understanding our cultural values helps us work better with Pasifika youth.

The Pasifika community in Christchurch is quite tight-knit, right? Is that a strength, when you're fighting something like suicide?

Well, we originally held three suicide prevention workshops and something we found was, yes, we do have a very strong community, but within Pacific cultures there are also a lot of stigmas we had to try to get rid of before we could talk about the actual issues.

They were things like we should sweep it under the rug, because if we talk to young people about suicide it might plant the seed of suicide in their mind.

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We also have to bring down the stigma that you should feel ashamed if someone in your family has taken their own life. We need to communicate with our young people and our elders that it's okay to talk about it and there is no shame in it, because we are all going through hard times.

The next question is, how do you talk to people about it? That's what we're trying now to impart to our Pasifika community.

That must be particularly important since the earthquakes?

Definitely. We're over-represented when it comes to things like mental health problems and depression.

A lot of our Pasifika young people and community live on the east side, and a lot of us in the red zone felt we were treated unfairly, not myself personally, but it's something I hear a lot.

It took a long time for the Canterbury rebuild to make its way to the east side, for our roads to be fixed, for our houses to be fixed.

The feeling was, does our city really care about us, when it looked like the more well-off on the other side of the city were being taken care of first.

Wesley's sister Hana, mum Fa'amanu Fa'afetai and MP Nuk Korako went with him to Parliament, where he was presented the NZ Youth Award. Photo / Christchurch Star
Wesley's sister Hana, mum Fa'amanu Fa'afetai and MP Nuk Korako went with him to Parliament, where he was presented the NZ Youth Award. Photo / Christchurch Star

So what was the experience at Parliament like?

It was fantastic. We met with National MP Nuk Korako and went to the gallery in Parliament to watch David Cunliffe's valedictory speech, which was awesome.

It was actually my second time going to Parliament, but the first time going with my mum and my sister, which was fantastic to do. The best thing was that child-like feeling, when I looked at my mum and thought, yes, my mum thinks I'm cool.

In terms of the community work I do, I guess my friends and family know what I do, but I don't really talk in depth about it.

For my family, the only time they really hear what I do is when I get an award, so it's pretty special. And I'm a 'mumma's boy', so I just think if my mum thinks I'm cool, I'm doing something right in my life.

If it was your second time at Parliament, when was the first?

I was part of a group presenting to the Standing Orders Select Committee, which sets the rules that dictate how Parliament runs.

We went there saying if you want more young people to vote and be involved in democracy, you need to make changes. They were things like better use of Parliament TV and being able to use your cellphones in Parliament.

And tell me a bit about your life and interests outside of this work?

To be honest, this takes a lot of my life, and I really enjoy doing this. But I do have other interests.

I play rugby for the Sumner division 1 team. I've always loved rugby. And I'm an engineering student at Canterbury University, currently second year in the civil engineering department.

Hopefully, I should be done next year.

So you're planning a career as an engineer?

I still haven't fully figured out what kind of engineering I want to do, but long term, yes, I want to be a civil engineer.

Short term, I would love to travel, maybe use the fact I can play rugby to see the world, if I could play for a European team somewhere.

I'd like to widen my experience and then bring that back home. But short and long term, I want to keep working for my Pasifika young people, in whatever capacity I'm in.

And for the average person on the street, is there anything we can do day-to-day to help fight suicide and mental illness?

It seems like such an airy-fairy answer, but just a smile and a bit of kindness goes a long way.

Having the courage to step out in faith and ask someone if they are okay, even if you don't know them, whether it's an outlier in a crowd, or if it's a friend who seems to be acting a tiny bit different.

These are signs, invitations we call them, to go and talk to them. Ask them, are you okay?

But at the same time, don't expect to be the answer and save their life, just be there to listen and to guide them to an actual professional or counsellor.

Don't feel the burden, because if something does go wrong it's not your fault. Whatever you can give to a person, your time or your presence, is enough.

Where to get help:

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
Youthline: 0800 376 633
Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
Samaritans 0800 726 666
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.