Pacific and Māori TikTokers get together to normalise talking about mental health

Caleb King and Sallyann Matafeo get real about mental health
Caleb King and Sallyann Matafeo get real about mental health Photo credit: Vaimaila Leatinu’u

Mental health and well-being is not usually a topic of discussion for many Pasifika and Māori families.

Feelings of whakamā (shame) and the weight of family expectations can be a barrier to seeking professional help for people going through mental and emotional distress.

But a group of Māori and Pacific social media creators are fighting to break that stigma through social media networking site TikTok - speaking about their everyday lives and issues and reaching over 18,000 viewers every week.

Dubbed Tha Panel, the group meets online every Tuesday at 9.30pm in a live broadcast to talanoa or kōrero about their struggles and experiences with mental health issues - all the while creating a safe space where no topic is too tapu.

Talking about what's under the surface 

Co-founder Caleb Phillips, 36, said talking is so important because "it's like getting the lid off the pot once it's boiling and letting that steam out". 

"No one really talks about what's going on under the surface - things that people are struggling with mentally."

Phillips, who has whakapapa ties to Ngārauru, Te Rarawa, Ngāi Tahu and Moriori, is known for his comedy sketches and entertaining people on TikTok.

That was a form of self-care after battling the grief of losing his father, he said.

"My dad died and I was trying to maintain my job, my marriage and the expectation I had on myself as to what being a man, husband and father is meant to be."

He identifies with Tha Panel's audience who say it is hard to reach out for help.

"It was a friend who saw the sadness behind my eyes and asked how I was. That helped me to question my own thoughts and what was going on inside me."

He recognises now that he was depressed at the time.

"I had to drop the expectations of society and even what my dad would have wanted me to be as a man," he said.

Sallyann Matafeo, the other co-founder, is the managing director of fruit and vegetable wholesaler Lady Dora's based in Ōtāhuhu, South Auckland.

She has gained popularity online through the unique way she markets the business on social media, with a livestream every Friday night advertising upcoming specials.

The live videos are complete with a vibrant Pacific Island marketplace vibe.

Different perspectives, one goal - to touch lives

The pair would often joke and banter while streaming online. However, one day, their conversation took a more earnest turn and they realised they could utilise their platform for good.

One day, a viewer asked an odd question: "If you were a superhero, what your superpower be?"

Matafeo, who hails from American Samoa, responded she would want to be able to read minds so she could see what people are going through and help them out of their struggles. 

The social media comedian and entrepreneur teamed up with an electricity dispatch co-ordinator, a professional wrestler and a church minister's son - making Tha Panel as diverse in background, as they are in personality and opinion.

Their differences reflect the nuances of the communities they hope to serve, knowing that topics of mental illness, relationship struggles and societal pressures are often swept under the carpet.

Pro wrestler Kingston Eclipse is a proud Samoan raised in Otara. He is blunt and straightforward.

Vili Ngahe is Tongan and the eldest of five siblings. His father was a church minister and has worked closely with youth affected by domestic violence.

The last voice on the panel is Ila Perez, who is of Tokelauan, Portuguese and Samoan descent but was raised in the modern "Kiwi way," she calls it.

She is the glue who holds Tha Panel together and keeps everyone in line, she said. 

Founders Phillips and Matafeo bring a comedic element to the episode, with the cheeky banter their communities are well-known for.

They say the comfort of being in their own home, their own phone and listening to familiar characters converse about heavy topics has already made a big difference for their viewers.

Matafeo recalls a woman who left an abusive relationship after stumbling across their segment.

"The topic wasn't necessarily about abuse," Matafeo said.

"It was just about communication and being able to speak to our family members. And from her watching, it gave her the courage to open up to her mum; who was able to pull her out of that situation."

Viewers have offered petrol vouchers, and registered therapists and marae have reached out in support.

The group has also been approached about touring local schools to talk directly to students about mental health.

Tha Panel is now a registered charity, thanks to the help of Matafeo's father, Tuilaepa Matafeo.

She said: "If we could at least touch one life, that's all that matters." 

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air