27 May 2022
as seen on nzherald.co.nz
Rugby league legends Jerry Seuseu and Ali Lauiti’iti are tackling mental health in young Māori and Pacific Islanders head-on.
The two ex-NRL stars are ambassadors for the New Zealand Rugby League Wellbeing Programme.
They travel the country talking at grassroots rugby league clubs to players, friends, coaches and anyone who wants to participate in the It Ain’t Weak To Speak campaign.
Seuseu told the Herald when he was playing professional rugby league for the Warriors, Kiwis and in the UK for Wigan, asking for help to deal with mental health issues was frowned upon.
“We were basically told to harden up and do your best,” Seuseu recalls.
“It wasn’t very fashionable to talk about mental health and people had to deal with it quietly. Fortunately for Ali and myself, we had a good Christian upbringing and that certainly helped us in our careers.
“That’s what it was like back then, but we have moved on and we encourage our young people to use their voices and be heard.
“Our statistics tell us mental health [challenges are] everywhere and our youth are suffering the most. It’s no weakness to reach out if you are struggling and not in a good space.”
Having hung up their playing boots a few years ago, Seuseu and Lauiti’iti want to give back to the community that supported them throughout their long and illustrious careers. They both still live in and around South Auckland.
Seuseu played 209 matches – 37 for Counties-Manukau (1995-1996), 132 for the Warriors (1997-2004) and 40 in the UK Super League for the Wigan Warriors (2005-2006). He also represented Samoa four times in 2000 and the Kiwis 11 times, from 2001-2004.
Lauiti’iti was one of the most gifted players to ever pull on a Warriors or New Zealand rugby league jersey, because of his athleticism and skills.
He was a 115-game Warrior from 1998-2003, played 200 games for UK Super League club Leeds from 2004-2011 and also for Wakefield Trinity in 94 matches from 2012-2015.
Seuseu said communities face their own unique dilemmas but youth issues are not dissimilar around the motu (nation).
“We are finding that wherever we go to speak with youth, each area has its own unique issues.
“Our team spoke in Invercargill and the group wanted to talk about alcohol and driving, because they had a tragedy a few weeks prior involving teenagers,” Seuseu said.
“There was a group of 60 and all of them knew those involved and were trying to come to terms with the accident and make sense of their loss.
“We also spoke with a group from Manurewa and people told us they might be a difficult group. But we gave them the opportunity and they were real conversant on how they felt.”
Seuseu said giving teenagers coping strategies and mechanisms was a big part of the programme, and it was rewarding work.
“We get a lot out of doing this as well,” Seuseu said.
The NZRL and the Warriors are working alongside Le Va, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) whose vision is to support whānau and communities for better health and wellbeing outcomes.
“In Auckland, the youth we speak to are more worried about their identity, social media and what is affecting them,” Seuseu said.
“Sometimes the conversations with youth are awkward but they have to be had.
“Ali and I try to talk with youth in a safe and engaging way, sometimes we use our PI humour, and that always brings a laugh,” Seuseu said.
Lauiti’iti said talking with youth about suicide was confronting but had to be discussed for the sake of our young people.
“We try to equip our youth with tools to deal with suicide, and although it is hard and confronting we have to speak about it,” Lauiti’iti said.
“But it’s also having the courage to step out and help out if you see one of your mates, or you, are not in the right space.”
In Auckland, 80 per cent of league players are Māori or Pasifika. Outside of Tāmaki Makaurau, 80 per cent of rugby league players are Māori.
WHERE TO GET HELP
If it is an emergency and you or someone else is at risk, call 111.
For counselling and support:
Lifeline: Call 0800 543 354 or text 4357 (HELP)
Suicide Crisis Helpline: Call 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
Need to talk? Call or text 1737
Depression helpline: Call 0800 111 757 or text 4202
For children and young people:
Youthline: Call 0800 376 633 or text 234
What’s Up: Call 0800 942 8787 (11am to 11pm) or webchat (11am to 10.30pm)
The Lowdown: Text 5626 or webchat
For help with specific issues:
Alcohol and Drug Helpline: Call 0800 787 797
Anxiety Helpline: Call 0800 269 4389 (0800 ANXIETY)
OutLine: Call 0800 688 5463 (0800 OUTLINE) (6pm-9pm)
Safe to talk (sexual harm): Call 0800 044 334 or text 4334
All services are free and available 24/7 unless otherwise specified.
For more information and support, talk to your local doctor, hauora, community mental health team, or counselling service. The Mental Health Foundation has more helplines and service contacts on its website.
Domestic violence was just part of the reality of growing up for former Warriors star Jerry Seuseu.
“Whether it was my neighbours or relatives or siblings, we were very familiar with what is called a hiding,” he recalls.
Now, he’s on a mission to change things for future generations.
Seuseu, along with fellow former Warrior Ben Henry, is a new ambassador for Le Va, an Auckland charity that helps support Pasifika families.
Workshops at Le Va are now co-facilitated by the New Zealand Warriors and the New Zealand Rugby League (NZRL), and funded through ACC.
“These days, we are looking at different ways of parenting,” Seuseu says.
Seuseu said growing up, domestic violence was his reality – something he wants to change for future generations.
Henry, who now works as the wellbeing and education manager for the New Zealand Warriors, says it’s important to connect with Pasifika dads.
“Fathers Fono for example, is a two-hour workshop where we just sit down with fathers that come from all walks of life, mostly Pacific islander and Māori men, and the challenges they sort of face as fathers,” he says.
Henry says the challenges the dads face range from lacking connections to their children, balancing work and family time, to how discipline a child without using violence.
“They come up with the solutions, and we just help them along the way in the workshop to discover, or to articulate what those solutions are.”
He says the Fathers Fono programme centres around themes such as building pride around being a Pasifika dad, enhancing the mana of Pasifika men, and reminding them of the importance of their role in their homes and in their communities.
Seuseu, now the NZRL’s wellbeing manager, says the league decided to partner with Le Va because of the work it was doing in the community.
“Our NZRL demographics are 80 per cent Māori and Pasifika, so it’s good to have a programme that caters to them and outlines some things we should think about as fathers,” he says.
“Especially as it relates to violence and addressing some of the violence we do have in our families, and our relationships with our partners.”
An Auckland University study in 2016 looking at the health and wellbeing of secondary school students found young Pasifika people were twice as likely to be physically punished compared to Pākehā children.
“We first address these issues by calling out the elephant in the room, using facts and the current rates,” Seuseu says.
“Then we look at tools and strategies we can use to become better fathers and part of that is just to switch back to the values we have as Pasifika people.”
Seuseu says those values incude love, kindness, and reciprocity.
“We’re reminding people that hey, these are the values that helped build up our community in the past, and we should uphold and practise these values on a daily basis.”
He says his past as a Warriors’ player helps him gather men in the community to have that conversation.
“When they see someone like myself talking about it, it makes it alright for them to share their story and for us to come together and bond as men and discuss ways we can improve.
“It is still difficult because some people don’t want to talk about it, but I think the more we do these things and promote it, the easier for us to come together and talk about our shortcomings and where we can improve, mainly as fathers but also as husbands.”
Henry says the New Zealand Warriors partnered with Le Va to address stigma around mental health.
“One in every four Pacific Islander or Māori has got some sort of mental health challenge that they’re facing,” Henry says.
“In a rugby league team, there’s maybe three or four of your teammates that are maybe going through some mental health challenges.
“This is why an organisation like this is so crucial. It’s getting rid of that stigma and talking about mental health and coming up with solutions.”
Justine Solomon, manager of strategic Investment at ACC says the agency, along with 10 others has been funding Le Va for about four years as part of a national strategy, Te Aorerekura, aimed at eliminating family and sexual violence.
“We know If we want to address these problems, we need to invest in the multiple reinforcing factors of prevention. We need to do not just behaviour change campaigns, but community mobilisation much like what Le va are leading here.”
Solomon says inspiring role models like Henry and Seuseu play an important role in connecting with communities to promote positive roles for men.