‘Saving Lives, one Conversation at a Time’: Talanoa’s groundbreaking approach to Mental Health in Pasifika Youths

"It's a testament to the power of community, cultural understanding, and the value of acknowledging mental health struggles."


In a world where mental health is often fought silently, a beacon of hope shines brightly through the transformative power of “Talanoa” (Open Dialogue) in New South Wales. 

Open dialogue has become a cornerstone of healing and recovery for many “Pasifika” (Pacific) Youths, creating a ripple effect of resilience in the Pasifika community.  

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This program emerged as a response to the profound pain etched into the collective memory of a group of youth profoundly affected by two tragic suicides at the Western Sydney University, Milperra campus in 2018.

Image: Talanoa session at Street University in Mount Druitt. Photo: Sela Siale.

Talanoa:  A Lifeline for Mental Health

24-year-old Sela Siale, who was one of those affected by the tragic suicide, said, “I was a part of the group that was affected by the two deaths by suicides at the Milperra campus in 2018. Our group was the inspiration behind Talanoa.”

“In response to the lack of resources we had at the time and the need for many to seek professional help, Talanoa laid a foundation.”

“Talanoa mirrored our cultural roots and served as a place to share our experiences, but over the years, it surpassed our expectations, transforming into something more remarkable.”

Image: Lana Aupaau, a Social Work Student Placement, Moera Tufunga, Counsellor Cultural Diversity Project Officer of Western Sydney University, and a parent engage in a Talanoa session from right to left at Matavai Cultural Arts Centre. Photo:  Sela Siale.

Sela explained, “Under the guidance of Moera Tufunga, Counsellor Cultural Diversity Project Officer of Western Sydney University, Talanoa transcended its initial purpose.” 

“It evolved into a haven where conversations were not just discussions—they became lifelines. It became apparent that Talanoa was needed everywhere.”

She said.

“It soon became evident that Talanoa’s value extended far beyond as an educational tool to help participants cope with their issues and find healthy coping strategies.”

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Sela said she has had the privilege to be both a participant and a facilitator.

“In my experience as a participant, Talanoa’s space was incredibly valuable. During a period of vulnerability and isolation, it provided me with a profound sense of being heard, free from judgment or obligation.” 

“Merely being part of it made me feel like I was coping, as I encountered inspiring stories that motivated me to persevere even when I had doubts,”

Sela said. 

Sela added, “In my role as a facilitator, my skills and experience were well-suited for the position. I have worked alongside the community and with many diverse cultures and people from various backgrounds.”

“Through this experience, I have been able to provide support without the necessity of diagnosing mental illness, a testament to the effectiveness of Talanoa.” 

“I hold a steadfast belief that communication is the key,” she shared. 

“Talanoa serves as a bridge over cultural barriers, offering a safe haven for individuals to be heard and share their stories openly. I’ve come to realise that just being present in this space contributes to its supportiveness.”

“Likewise, every person who joins our circle shares their story, or imparts advice as a guest speaker adds substantial value to Talanoa. In the end, it evolves into a vast supportive network that can be applied in various settings,” she said. 

Image: Sela Siale sitting on the floor with Social Work Students on Placement at Matavai Cultural Arts Centre. Photo: JT

An approach that Inspires Future Change

Lana Aupaau, who was on Social Work Student Placement under the Mental Health and Wellbeing Team at Matavai Pacific Cultural Arts Centre, said the Talanoa approach is a powerful cultural response program for young Pacific Islanders, as it continues to make a meaningful impact on participants. 

“As part of Talanoa, young leaders are emerging, driven to connect with Pasifika youth on the critical issue of mental health. One inspiring example is a specific young person who stepped up to facilitate a discussion within Talanoa, underscoring their deep belief in the program’s mission.”

She said for many involved, participation in Talanoa has enhanced their understanding of cultural safety and the application of psychological first aid. 

“Facilitators are trained to hold space for youth to share their stories and provide vital support in case of distress disclosures, promoting coping strategies.”

Lana said,

“I have learnt the value of deep listening when a person is telling their stories through Talanoa. I can respond to disclosures of distress appropriately to ensure that participants feel supported when they leave the space.”

“Challenges in the Talanoa approach, particularly closing sessions safely and responding to distress, have been addressed through smaller group discussions and applying psychological first aid. These strategies have made participants feel safe and provided necessary support structures.”

“Talanoa has transformed perspectives on mental health by valuing cultural approaches, breaking down barriers to access services for Pasifika youth and communities. Participants now recognise the vital importance of early intervention in potentially saving lives,” she shared.

Non-Pasifika Student’s Journey into Pasifika Cultures and Communities

For many, the allure of Pasifika cultures and communities might be an incredible and enriching journey.

“As a non-Pasifika student on placement for my Master of Social Work, my interest in Pasifika cultures and communities was ignited when I joined the Matavai Cultural Arts Centre,” said Sumeet Khanal 

“Although I do not have Pacific Island heritage, my exposure to this diverse community grew through my involvement in organising and facilitating Talanoa Sessions.”

Image: Sumeet Khanal and Losa, students on placement, facilitate a session as they move from left to right. Photo: Sela Siale.

He said the Talanoa Program gave him a structured and immersive experience within Pasifika cultures and communities.

“Participating in Talanoa sessions at Matavai challenged and improved my critical thinking abilities. One memorable experience was co-facilitating a Men’s Business session at Street University. 

“The topic was heavy, and the engagement within the group was encouraging,” he said. 

Sumeet shared, “Various aspects of Pasifika cultures and values have intrigued and inspired me.”

“Among them are the strong emphasis on family and community, the rich traditions of oral storytelling, the vibrant expressions of art and dance, and the remarkable resilience and adaptability of Pasifika individuals in the face of adversity.”

” I have developed a deeper appreciation for cultural sensitivity, humility, and the necessity to tailor social work practices to the unique needs of individuals and communities.”

He said the experiences he had through the Talanoa Program have profoundly impacted his personal growth and worldview.

“I’ve cultivated a heightened sense of cultural humility, empathy, and commitment to social justice. Exposure to Pasifika cultures has effectively challenged and helped dispel the stereotypes and biases I held before,” he said.

Bridging Mental Health Gaps 

Moera Tufunga said the program’s approach is as unique as its name. 

“Talanoa is an open, closed space. It’s open to anyone, allowing anyone to join without needing a diagnosis of mental illness. Yet, it’s closed in the sense that it’s a week-by-week engagement, ensuring participants’ privacy and confidentiality,” she said.

Image: Participants, parents, and facilitators come together after a Talanoa session at Matavai Cultural Centre. Photo: Sela Siale.

She said, “Talanoa employs a “Care Collaborate Connect” framework, emphasising psychological first aid and suicide prevention training. This not only helps students on placement but also staff members involved in the program.”

“The main goal is to increase awareness and the ability to seek help, with additional support and resources readily available.”

“One of the key strengths of the Talanoa program is its ability to normalise distress and coping through cultural safety and psychological first aid,” Ms Tufunga said. 

“This is achieved through coping plans, well-being plans, and training for all staff and volunteers in psychological first aid and suicide prevention. The program integrates Pacific culture’s positive aspects, such as family, food, arts, and sports, into its activities.”

“It equips them with tools to recognise and respond to poor mental health outcomes.”

Image: Sela Siale documents a Talanoa session at Matavai Cultural Arts Centre Photo: Sela Siale.

Ms Tufunga said the program’s focus on youth in crisis after lockdown has a profound impact on Pacific young people in New South Wales.

“Talanoa also collaborates with Matavai Cultural Arts Centre, providing opportunities for young people to co-facilitate meaningful conversations on mental health.”

She added Professional help is integrated into the approach through Pasifika guest speakers from various support services, enhancing the community engagement process.

“The program’s success stories are a testament to its effectiveness. By addressing issues over 10 to 14 weeks of discussions on topics like grief, healthy relationships, resilience, and more, Talanoa creates a space for healing and growth.”

“It’s a testament to the power of community, cultural understanding, and the value of acknowledging mental health struggles.”

Ms Tufunga explained, “Talanoa is not just a program; it’s a lifeline and a safe space for Pacific youth and to those you participate.

“It’s an initiative that shows the power of addressing mental health with cultural sensitivity and first response aid, empowering individuals to seek the help they need.

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