First clinical psychologist to work in Tonga vows not to be the last

Ms Malia 'Alisi Tatafu Vea at her graduation ceremony, December 2022 Ms Malia 'Alisi Tatafu Vea and her daugher, Pote The bilingual book written by Ms Tatafu Vea and her daughter which she hopes will be distributed in Tongan primary schools

Ms Malia ‘Alisi Tatafu Vea is one of a handful of clinical psychologists from Tonga and the only person to have worked in the role, in Tonga.

Since graduating with a Master of Clinical Psychology from the Australian National University (ANU), Ms Tatafu Vea has taken it upon herself to drive change and grow access to mental health services within her homeland.

“My ultimate wish is that psychology could be incorporated into the educational curriculum in Tonga starting from primary schools."

"There is high stigma towards those with mental health issues and even mental health workers in Tonga. The majority of people do not really understand the difference between a psychiatrist and psychologist or the different approaches to treatment."

"To normalise the need for mental health support, I’m aware the greatest impact and quickest changes can occur if we start with educating parents and their children,” Ms Tatafu Vea explained.

With this vision in mind, Ms Tatafu Vea has created a children’s story book that she hopes will be distributed within Tongan schools to support the mental health of young people.

The book, written with her 13-year-old daughter, is about a girl named Pote and her journey towards recovery after witnessing a traumatic event that is comparable to what children in Tonga witnessed in the 2022 Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai volcanic eruption.

“There aren’t any similar books like it, and because it’s bilingual - written in Tongan and English - it will be helpful to so many children who have been psychologically affected."

"My daughter and I were in Tonga when the volcano erupted so we have drawn upon personal experience to create this book. It incorporates the symptoms and signs of anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder within the story and provides ideas for supporting children to manage their emotions.”

Ms Tatafu Vea’s journey to become a clinical psychologist started at the local private university in Tonga where she completed undergraduate studies, but eventually took her overseas. After completing a Master of Cross Cultural Psychology in New Zealand she returned to practice in Tonga.

“The Ministry of Health created a new position within the hospital for a Clinical Psychologist - prior to my clinical training - and I was able to put all my knowledge to work for the next five years.”

Although she knew she was having a positive impact with her clients, she also realised there were limitations to her knowledge and she was keen to fill the gaps.

“Mental health clients have been my priority, and I knew that the knowledge I would gain by completing a Master of Clinical Psychology would help improve my skills and knowledge to provide the services that my clients deserve,” Ms Tatafu Vea said.

“I felt very fortunate to have been accepted to ANU through the Australia Awards Scholarships for my clinical studies."

"I came to Australia when I was pregnant with my fourth child and although I had many challenges juggling study and personal responsibilities, I felt very supported by the teaching staff and my peers who were understanding of my situation.”

After completing her clinical Master’s degree, Ms Tatafu Vea returned to Tonga to practice as a qualified clinical psychologist with the Ministry of Health. To date, she is the only Tongan clinical psychologist to have worked in the country.

Despite everything she has already achieved, Ms Tatafu Vea is just getting started.

Bringing together her expertise in cultural and clinical psychology, and her interest in supporting childhood mental health, she is currently undertaking a PhD in Psychology which will further assist her to implement change in her country.

“I want to create programs that support Tongan parents and children, and one way to do that is through research. Tongans see themselves as unique and different to people from other cultures so I want to understand the values of Tongans and how Tongan parents socialise those values towards their children early in life, ultimately, shaping the people they become.”

She also wants to grow and improve the psychology workforce in Tonga to ensure that evidence-based and culturally appropriate support is available and is working to establish a Psychological Society for Tonga so that guidelines for practising and registration are in place. In addition, she is providing mentorship and advice to the next cohort of Tongan students interested in pursuing a career in psychology.

Ms Tatafu Vea is looking forward to returning to ANU in December 2022 when she will walk across the stage to receive her Master of Clinical Psychology award.