The Minister for Health and Medical Services, Hon. Dr Ifereimi Waqainabete; Hon. Alexander O’Connor – Assistant Minister for Health and Medical Services;
Ms Bernadette Welch – Permanent Secretary for Health and Medical Services;
Commissioner of Correctional Services;
Commissioner of Police;
Divisional Commander – Salvation Army;
Ladies and Gentlemen

Bula vinaka, everyone, and good afternoon. I’m happy to be with you all today to mark the beginning of a new chapter for St. Giles, as we officially open its new Drug and Alcohol Unit. St. Giles has been treating patients at this location in Fiji for 135 years. In its beginning, it served as an asylum, housing patients to live out the rest of their days in isolation.

Thankfully, as the world came to better understand mental health disorders, treatment at St. Giles have evolved to become much more humane and hopeful. In recent decades, the mission of this institution has shifted from isolation to rehabilitation, with an ultimate goal of getting folks back on their feet and back into Fijian society.

Looking back on the past decades, we can understand the type of treatment administered to those suffering from mental health disorders was more damaging than it was helpful. Isolating patients and wholly removing them from society only served to make those already feeling trapped feel even more helpless and alone.

But while the treatments and methods used by St. Giles have certainly changed since those days, unfortunately, the stigma around mental health still lingers within Fijian society. Bullying persists, especially on social media, where we see keyboard warriors making fun and joking about St. Giles, and undermining the life-saving work of this institution and its staff. They must not be the ones to guide our national dialogue on mental health.

To confront this head-on, we can talk about mental health openly, and recognise that it is a problem that may hide in the shadows of our minds, but it is common-place, and it is treatable. We need to shake the idea that getting help is some kind of weakness, when in fact, it is the ultimate show of strength. Instead of passing judgement, we need to offer a helping hand when our friends and neighbours are trying to heal. And rather than perpetuating hurtful stereotypes and stigmas about mental health conditions, we must recognise them with compassion.

My friends, I have great hope for the expansion of mental health services in Fiji. As the years go on and the stigma of these disorders continues to fade, we will also benefit from a younger generation that is more aware and more passionate than ever about combatting these conditions. We are gaining critical momentum in mental health treatment and care –– momentum that will be carried by our youth.

This was made clear in our ‘30 Under 30’ competition this year which recognised the “faces of Fiji’s future” in a showcase that was one of the highlights of the widelypraised ADB Annual Meeting in Nadi. Two of our young winners, Jone Veisamasama and Maxine Tuwila, were vocal advocates for changing the way we think about mental health in Fiji, and working diligently –– through their leadership in social work and counselling –– to alleviate the struggles of those suffering with psychological conditions. 

I encourage students across the country to consider following their footsteps, as the future of counselling and treatment is one of great growth, great potential and great personal fulfillment in Fiji. It is a career path that will allow you to be at the forefront of a changing culture where we finally see a healthy mind to be as important as a healthy body. With this in mind, today is a big step in the right direction. This Drug and Alcohol Unit is the first of its kind at a Fijian hospital, but it won’t be the last; we have our eyes set on opening similar addiction and rehabilitation centres at each of our regional hospitals.

My friends, substance abuse –– whether excessive alcohol consumption or the rising use of hard drugs like methamphetamine and cocaine –– is a growing concern in our country. It has been reported that over the past few years, there has been an increase in patients with substance use disorders, making the need for a rehabilitation unit like this one all the more pressing. My Government is taking big steps to root out this problem wherever it exists, because while recovery is immensely important, prevention is key. The truth is, we would much prefer to invest our dollars in ensuring no child ever has exposure to hard drugs in the first place, taking a proactive approach rather than a reactive one.

That’s why – with the help of international partners like Australia and Korea –– we’re taking bold action to better patrol our seas, with a mission to stop the flow of illegal drugs through our country as they move on to their intended markets in Australia, New Zealand and beyond. Through a dedicated fleet of ships and highly-trained staff, we are dedicated to curbing trafficking from foreign countries into Fiji.

Meanwhile, I encourage Fijian parents to do their part in this critical fight. Set a good example for your children. Help them find happiness and fulfillment in other ways –– and give them the emotional support that they need to choose a path that is free of substance abuse. Talk to them openly at a young age about the dangers of drugs and alcohol, and guide them to a future that is free of addiction and dependency. I’ve heard it said that it takes a whole village to raise a successful child.

Well, it will take our entire nation to come together and give every Fijian man, woman and child the chance to live life free from exposure to hard drugs. To every parent, friend, and neighbour out there working to keep our streets clean from these deadly substances: You have an ally in my Government and in the Fiji Police Force. We’re very keen to pursue the community-based partnerships that are critical to keeping our nation safe from harm.

My friends, from prevention to education to rehabilitation, we must continue to address substance use disorders –– and all psychiatric conditions –– from all sides. By doing so, we can enter into a new age of mental health care in Fiji.

And every Fijian can take part in this path forward, simply by offering a shoulder to lean on when we see our brothers and sisters being led astray. Drugs, alcohol and self-harm are all forms of misguided self-medication that the mentally unwell turn to when they aren’t living a fulfilling life; but instead of turning to substance abuse, those suffering with mental health and addiction need a support system they can turn to.

Across all income brackets and backgrounds, from successful professionals to seemingly-happy students, we see this as a plague on our society –– a misguided moral compass pointing them to an unhealthy and unfulfilling future. By actively looking for warning signs and openly asking if they need help, friends and loved ones can fix that compass, and we can fill that void. Let’s pledge to do it together.

I now have the pleasure of declaring the St. Giles Drug and Alcohol Unit officially open.

Thank you. Vinaka vakalevu.