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Waves on the Beach
Waves crash against the rocks of American Samoa’s Turtle Shark cove,
which is named after a Samoan legend. Members of the Poly Psi team used the legend in one of the cultural stories they adapted to teach social-emotional learning to Samoan students.

Read Time: 5 minutes
 

“It’s a kakou thing; it’s a ‘we’ thing. It’s not about the ‘I’ or wao in Hawaiian. The work I do is driven by my community, and if it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be there.” With these words, BYU graduate and therapist Bango Gancinia encapsulates the approach to life of many Pasifika people. 

Gancinia is a member of the Pasifika community. Despite their unique cultures, history, language, and spiritual practices, Pasifika, or the people of the Pacific Islands, often find themselves lumped into an unwieldy demographic category with Asian, Asian American, and other cultural groups. This makes it difficult to understand the unique needs of Pasifika, particularly in areas such as mental health.

A Brigham Young University team from the David O. McKay School of Education is helping to change that. The Polynesian Psychology Research Team (the Poly Psi Team) is embracing the uniqueness of Pacific Island cultures and using that uniqueness to create more effective therapy approaches. The team may be unique in all the world, according to its founder,
Kawika Allen.

“Our team is the only team specifically doing research on mental health needs, psychotherapies, and counseling interventions for Pacific Islanders all over the world,” says Allen, an associate professor in the David O. McKay School of Education. The lack of attention to the mental health needs of cultural communities has gone on too long, Allen says, and the Poly Psi Team’s work points the way for similar efforts aimed at other BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) and minoritized groups.

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Students in Classroom
BYU students Kris Urbina, Isabel Medina Hull, and Melia Fonoimoana
Garrett work with students during a social-emotional learning lesson at a
Samoan school.

Although Allen started the Poly Psi Team in 2013, its seeds were first planted in 2004, while he was writing his master’s thesis on identity, self-esteem, and psychological well-being among Polynesian communities in Utah. 

“I decided to make a commitment to myself in my career that I would make this my number-one priority,” Allen says. The program now includes 13 professors and doctoral students, has published numerous research papers, and has inspired healing in countless individuals.

“A lot of our research is to help mitigate human suffering in any way that we can, especially through social-emotional learning and mental health strategies,” says McKay School assistant professor Beth Cutrer.

By focusing on a neglected population, the team can reach more people who could benefit from their work and research and who typically lack access to mental health services. For example, the team noticed that many Polynesian people who started therapy did not return after their first session. Poly Psi research found that many Polynesians use a relational approach to similar situations, called “talk story.” This method of connecting is more informal than traditional therapeutic approaches and involves connecting to others through the telling of stories and life experiences.

When members of the Polynesian community enter a clinical setting, the lack of talk story means that the traditional Western way of asking clinical questions can feel intrusive or invasive. The research showed that if clinicians change their approach, spend time on talk story, and reserve those clinical questions for the patient’s second or third session, the practitioner-patient relationship is more established and the chance of success grows.

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Teachers in Classroom

An important part of the team’s research is traveling to the different Polynesian countries and conducting in-field research, Allen says.

“One of my favorite things to do in this field is to be able to take students, mentor them, and take them to one of the South Pacific islands and have them experience a life-changing moment of helping, serving, and reaching out to others who are in need,” Allen says. The team has visited New Zealand, American Samoa, Hawai’i, and Fiji in recent years.

“When you read a book, in order to be helped by a book, you need to be able to align with or see yourself with the character,” says Beth Cutrer, a McKay School assistant professor who has studied bibliotherapy—the use of books alongside traditional therapeutic methods to support a patient’s health.

Cutrer and three graduate students noticed a lack of Polynesian characters in children’s books. They also knew that Pacific Islander adolescents had high rates of suicide. The team decided to create books to help children learn emotional resilience and how to handle “mad, sad, scared” emotions. They recently published eight books in which all of the main characters are Polynesian. In July 2023, the team traveled to American Samoa to share their work with children in the classroom.

On every island on which they conduct research, the Poly Psi Team works with cultural brokers who act as intermediaries between the team and local people. This relationship-forming, trust-building step is crucial in an area of the world with a history of foreigners taking advantage of communities and their natural resources.

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Children Listening to a Book Being Read
Top: Students and teachers at a school in American Samoa listen as BYU student Kris Urbina reads from one of the Poly Psi Team's culturally adapted books.

Bottom: With BYU colleagues and Fijian psychotherapist Selina Kuruleca, Kawika Allen appears on Fijian  television show Breakfast at Fiji One to talk about the team's research and Polynesian mental health. 

“I come with an open heart to learn and not to hurt or damage anything about who they are or the relationship I want to create with them,” says Allen. “I’m there to learn from what they
can offer me and my team.”

This respect has been a guiding factor throughout the program’s history. Each member loves the unique cultures of Polynesia and is eager to work with and serve the people through highly impactful experiences.

“They see Christ in these people, and they see Christ’s work and the Atonement of Jesus Christ working and operating in this research and in these different islands we visit,” says Allen.
“I found a home there,” Cutrer says of the Poly Psi Team.

This feeling of home led student and team member Bango Gancinia to choose BYU for his graduate studies. Gancinia originally planned to study the use of humor in therapeutic practice and interviewed with some of the top humor researchers at another university. However, he came to the McKay School to meet with Allen specifically. Toward the end of the interview, Gancinia had gotten up to leave when Allen called for the student’s wife and child to join the interview.

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BYU colleagues and Selina Kuruleca

“Right when he said that the Spirit told me this is where I need to be,” Gancinia says. “That told me my culture would be respected, my views would be respected, and I would be understood and not have to explain myself. The choice was, ‘Do I want to go down the bunny hole of humor, or do I want to serve my people?’” That service ethic unites the Poly Psi Team, Allen says. He is working on a book about the team’s research findings that could act as a plainly written manual to help therapists and psychologists help their Polynesian clients. 

Gancinia’s dreams are even bigger. He hopes to reach Hawaiian communities where they live—in their homes.

“The big dream is to someday have multiple therapy practices on the Big Island with a cultural healing center where I bring in practitioners of dance, songs, chants, martial arts, history, and healing—using those frameworks as important ways to reach the sacred practice of connection that we have,” Gancinia says.

The Poly Psi Team works in hope, seeking through their research to improve lives in Pacifika communities worldwide.

“A part of that dream as well is to inspire young people to be proud of their culture and heritage and know they can bring pieces of themselves into their work,” Gancinia says. “Heavenly Father gave us culture. Heavenly Father gave us the heritage we have. When we don’t have representation, we fail to believe. I want this younger generation to be proud—not in a bad way but in a way that glorifies our culture, allows our ancestors, and heals us.”

Written by Bridget Quain
Photography by Kawika Allen and Beth Cutrer