Numbers and Names on Pohnpei

I was sitting in the back of a village church waiting to say mass when a teenage girl asked how old I was. When I told her that I was 76, she scrunched her eyes in disbelief, looked at me again, and then said “I thought you were much older. You look at least 90.”

I really did feel like 90 a couple days earlier after three one-on-one games with a basketball buddy from the Philippines. I felt at least that old many times during this trip to Pohnpei as I tried to remember the names that wouldn’t come, as friends came up to offer their good wishes. But, whether 76 or 90, I couldn’t help but be rejuvenated by the return to my old stomping grounds. At times, I felt as if I were 24 again–my age when I first arrived here in 1963.

This week-long visit to Pohnpei was prompted by a big grant that I received from FSM Health Services to do three projects over the next nine months. We are gathering data on suicides there over the past eight years to complete a database of suicides over a 50 year period. I’ve been doing this sort of thing off and on for a long time, but this will cap our efforts and give us a half century of good data to analyze. We hope to be able to show how the suicide “epidemic” in the islands has changed (and hopefully declined) in the course of time. I only wish that we could somehow convince our neighbors in the Marshall Islands and Palau to put together a similar project so that we could compare the results there with what we have for FSM.

Twenty-five years ago, in 1990, MicSem did a survey of serious mental illness in the islands. We ended up with a list of over 400 names and extensive background data on each of the mentally ill persons. Our current project will allow us to follow up on these individuals 25 years after the original survey. Have they continued with their medication? How have their relations with their own families been altered over the years because of their illness? Do their families still house them and provide basic care for them? Have some of them shown significant improvement? How many have died, and what did they die from? Perhaps this kind of follow up survey is common in the US, but I don’t ever remember hearing about such a thing in the islands.

Then there is the alcohol-and-drugs part of our project. Some branch of Health Services is always doing a survey of drug and alcohol use in FSM, it seems. The problem is that no one ever seems to dig through the files to find the old surveys so that we could stitch the snapshots together and have a look at the patterns of drug and alcohol use over time. This is precisely what we are hoping to do in our current project in FSM. It would be wonderful to have similar information for Palau and the Marshalls, but, alas, our grant does not cover this other island nations. (Or have I mentioned that before?)

So here I am–at the age of 76 (looking like 90 but feeling at times like 24)–working on a three-fold project that embraces 50 years of suicide data, 25 years of change in mental patients, and a 30-year period of drug and alcohol ups and downs. Numbers are important. Let’s hope that we do a respectable job in this work of ours.

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About the author

Francis X. Hezel, SJ
Francis X. Hezel, SJ

Francis X. Hezel, SJ, is a Jesuit priest who has lived and worked in Micronesia since 1963. At different times he has served as high school teacher, school administrator, pastor, and regional superior to the Jesuits of Micronesia. He spent thirty years directing the Micronesian Seminar, a non-profit, non-governmental organization based in Pohnpei, Micronesia. He has written and spoken widely about social change and its impact on island societies. He has also written several books on Micronesian history, including The First Taint of Civilization, Strangers in Their Own Land, and The New Shape of Old Island Cultures. His most recent book, Making Sense of Micronesia: The Logic of Pacific Island Culture, is available through University of Hawaii Press.

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