I AM: How music helped a young Tongan lawyer with anxiety

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It took an anxiety attack for law graduate and creative artist John Paul Foliaki to finally acknowledge his mental health was in the pits and that it needed to be addressed.

This week he shared the story of his journey through dance, music, spoken word and film in a showcase called I AM in South Auckland’s Māngere Art Centre.

John Paul Foliaki on stage in I AM in South Auckland’s Mangere Art Centre.

John Paul Foliaki on stage in I AM in South Auckland’s Māngere Art Centre. Photo: RNZ / Mabel Muller

A proud 25-year-old Tongan, Foliaki worked in one of the top four accounting firms in New Zealand as an intern and was even offered a permanent full-time position.

It was a job he recognised as a dream for a graduate lawyer, a fulfilment of his parents’ wishes and a pay-off for sacrifices made by his migrant grandparents.

“Wanting to make my family proud is what kept me there,” he said.

I AM showcase performers

I AM showcase performers. Photo: RNZ / Mabel Muller

Foliaki said he was in a dark place. When the anxiety attack hit, he could no longer ignore what he had been going through.

“I was by myself when it happened… it was a turning point for me. It was scary.

“Because of that incident I had to seek professional help… I left my job the following week.”

John Foliaki in 'I AM'

John Foliaki in ‘I AM’. Photo: RNZ / Mabel Muller

Foliaki turned to music and songwriting in the days that followed. It was his therapy.

“I wrote so many songs… you could tell listening to the lyrics that the person who wrote was definitely going through a hard time.”

It was reflecting upon his cultural identity and remembering the sacrifices his grandparents made that was pivotal in turning his mental health around.

Folaki had a hard conversation with his parents about wanting to pursue a passion in the creative arts, he landed a job in mental health work for Pasifika youth and now wants young Pasifika people to not only acknowledge the importance of mental health but also learn the tools to help them manage it.

A scene from the I AM showcase

A scene from the I AM showcase. Photo: RNZ / Mabel Muller

“Let’s be honest not everyone likes talking about their feelings … give them the tools to express themselves,” said Foliaki.

“We’ve got the tools, we’ve just become unfamiliar with how to use them… to navigate and nourish mental health.”

For showcase dancer Natalia Ioane and Resonate singer Richard Wolfgramm, the show’s message was important for them to be a part of given the stark statistics around suicide for Pasifika and Māori youth.

“From when I was in high school, we never talked about this kind of stuff. We hear about suicide, but no one talks about it.”

Natalia Ioane performs in the I AM showcase.

Natalia Ioane performs in the I AM showcase. Photo: RNZ / Mabel Muller

“I hope our audience allows themselves to be open-minded and see that it [creative arts] can help with mental health,” said Ioane.

“There’s something powerful about people telling their stories and experiences… the people that come, are people that need to hear it.

“For some people, when we’re talking about mental health, some of the time we’re actually talking about life and death. People could be on the brink of making a decision,” said Wolfgramm.

During this interview, Foliaki held back tears and apologised many times for getting emotional.

“I didn’t realise putting all of this together you’re actually re-living all the feelings.”

Performers on stage during the I AM showcase

Performers on stage during the I AM showcase. Photo: RNZ / Mabel Muller

But he is determined to re-live the memories of it all, hoping it could inspire and change a life.

“I just want them to be able to relate to my story. It’s understanding and recognising that everyone does experience, at some point in their lives, depression and anxiety… and I want them to acknowledge it.”

“Not just saying ‘mental health is a thing’ but making it personal.”

“It’s still a journey and I still have my moments but now I’m better equipped to deal with those emotions.”

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