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Joseph Fa'afiu

Pastor and leader in South Auckland 

Joseph Fa’afiu is a pastor and leader, who has served the South Auckland community for nearly 20 years. His work in suicide prevention began five years ago when he founded HopeWalk, a grassroots suicide awareness movement, which organises and leads walks both nationally and overseas.

Back then, Joseph was stunned to discover that South Auckland had no suicide support groups. “There are groups out west and on the North Shore but we found it really shocking that in the area we are in, with the suicide rate we have, there were no support groups.”

To address inequities in the system, Joseph created Link4Life, to help bereaved Māori and Pasifika families find support after the loss of a loved one to suicide, through a series of three workshops.

After HopeWalk, Joseph worked with locals to create LinkFest, a health promotional festival filled with activities, speakers and live music. “At LinkFest we explained what this mahi was about, and families wanted to be a part of it,” says Joseph. Link4Life started with 50 families, but dropped to 35 over the past year due to COVID-19 and Polyfest.

Link4Life’s kaupapa is to co-design, with families, a blueprint for moving forward, to make sure they get the support they need, and to empower them to become a strong unit. Joseph believes a family’s greatest resource is each other. “I mention co-design all the time. It’s best to work with the families instead of trying to throw stuff at them. They have the answers, they’re just too afraid to share them.

“The people make Link4Life successful” says Joseph. “When people start sharing their story, when they hear their own voice coming back to them, and they feel like no-one is judging them.” He says that guilt is always there, and fear of judgement from others. “Having a voice to actually talk about it, to have the kōrero, have the talanoa... the journey we’ve had with Link4Life is seeing families find their way back to some kind of hope.

“With suicide, there is a stigma, so people can’t voice it, because shame is there, whakamā. Once they get over that hump, and share their story, it empowers someone else to share theirs. It’s a ripple effect.”

Clinical support in the form of trained counsellors is present at Link4Life workshops to ensure they don’t re-traumatise anyone. “We invite many families, but not everyone comes, it’s too early, or it’s just too much, says Joseph. “But that’s ok. The invitation is still there. When you’re ready, come when you want to talk.”

The workshops kick off with the families sharing their vision for the future. “We vision board with the families. Where they are and where they hope to be.”  The next step is to create a ‘family think tank’, to identify resources, and detail their experiences. “In terms of the support they received, they were very blunt and straightforward... many said they don’t trust the system, which is very sad, but understandable,” says Joseph. “One comment stood out for me: ’It’s like putting band-aids on broken bones’.”

Families conduct a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis of themselves as a unit. Communication is a key area that families identify they need help with. Joseph says “Since the suicide, they haven’t talked. When you’re bereaved by suicide, you don’t know what to say or how to say it."

Finally, the families are asked to evaluate how they’ve grown and what they’ve learned. Was it useful? “Because if something wasn’t, it’s good for us to know,” says Joseph.

To do this project again, Joseph says he’d like a bigger team. “There’s four of us, all volunteers. We need 10 paid people to make it more effective.” 

“From a personal point of view, this mahi can take heaps out of you. It’s really about finding the space for your self-care as well,” says Joseph. Families worry about who they can contact if Joseph or a counsellor isn’t available, so he brought together other community leaders who work in suicide prevention, to discuss creating a safety net for some of these families. One who has worked in this field for 25 years says “No one cares about us, but we care about everyone else, where is our support?” Joseph says. “We love doing it, there is a passion there, but it also requires wisdom, knowing when to pull back. Passion and wisdom work well together.”

I mention co-design all the time. It’s best to work with the families instead of trying to throw stuff at them.