Against the grain


Paniora grew up in New Zealand, as part of the Cook Island Maori community. As a young person he felt the pressure of many expectations and stereotypes from his community.

“You are expected to support the community, where the community leader is also the minister or school counsellor but does not necessarily have the qualifications for it. You are expected to support your immediate family, as well the other families in the community. There is a real sense of guilt if you don’t. There were the expectations of being good at sports and succeeding in the future.”

Growing up in a disadvantaged community wasn’t easy. Alcohol was everywhere and used by a lot of people. It was easy to resort to alcohol, and too often Paniora saw the destruction first-hand. Paniora considers himself as the black sheep, he went against the grain of what was expected of Pacific Islanders.

“It was village mentality. One for all, all for one. It becomes challenging when you want to be an individual if you don’t live up to the stereotypes. For example, not being able to play sports” Paniora explains.

Paniora’s personal life suffered when he experienced a long term relationship breakdown. He was living on his own and facing homelessness as a young person, while still trying to pursue further education.

He experienced loneliness, anxiety, loss of sleep and loss of weight due to a lack of appetite. He was struggling to get motivated and be productive. Paniora’s own sense of purpose was missing.

Paniora experienced feelings of fear and failure as he compared his situation to friends who were in long term relationships. He felt he could not count on those friends for support. Paniora acknowledges the love and support from his parents and family, but realised he needed professional help and support.

“I felt stuck. I needed to get these feelings out of my system as quick as I could so I could get back on track”, Paniora explains.

Paniora remembers the support he received from youth workers when he was in Year 7 and 8. The youth workers offered him options and strategies to get help. Paniora decided to reach out to Headspace and youth homelessness services.

“It was a light bulb moment. Stepping out and reaching out. Very new to the family. I wanted to be a good role model and did not want to resort to violence and alcohol. So, I sought help” he explains.

Paniora did not realise how good his support network was until he asked for help from the people around him. When Paniora first reached out to a friend he felt embarrassed and scared to make the phone call. However, Paniora knew his friend was a good friend, who had an open door policy, at any time of the day. The type of friend who would not make fun of him if he told him his situation.

“Bro, the boys are here. You know where we are, the doors are open and we will be waiting”. Paniora’s friend replied when he confided in him. These words stayed with Paniora. His friend understood and validated his feelings. Paniora was ready to sit down and chat.

Paniora has found other ways to express himself with the support he received. He decided to record his recovery journey through livestream after opening up to his friend. For Paniora, it was a powerful experience, the livestream lasted 12 minutes. The next day, the message went viral when his friends found out that he was not a in a good place. Paniora’s friends were in shock, because to them, Paniora always came across as happy or strong, and would never cry or be sad. For Paniora, sharing his experience online made him more relatable and approachable.

The positive feedback Paniora received prompted him to record livestreams every day to highlight the issues he experienced as a young man from a diverse community. Paniora spoke openly of his experience and what it was like to reach out and ask for help. By connecting online, Paniora expanded his support network. People were learning how to express themselves or how to seek help. Paniora’s siblings from interstate came to support him after he opened up.

Paniora describes this whole process as, “a way to build a more compassionate voice with yourself. That can be very challenging…comes with a lot of practice and focus on the strengths”.

Paniora has shown resilience and motivation to succeed against the grain. He could not have done it without the support of his friends and the professional help he reached out to receive. By being open and sharing his story, Paniora believes that he can make a difference, and show the life changing benefits to those going through similar experiences. Paniora Nukunuku is a youth worker who is dedicated to letting young people know that there are services available to help.

Scan this code with your phone to share your feedback about this story.

QR Code

Paniora’s story is a part of the Tackling the Challenge Project, a collection of local men’s stories about resilience and recovery. If you have a story to share and would like to know more, contact Brendan Bennett on or on 8738 5983. If you need support, call Lifeline: 13 11 14 or the Mental Health Line a 24-hour telephone service: 1800 011 511.