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Auckland Mayor hopeful Efeso Collins reveals how his wife saved his life

A frontrunner in the upcoming election, Efeso Collins reveals how his beloved family has rescued him from struggles with his mental and physical health

By Florence Hartigan
When Fa'ana-na- Efeso Collins announced in January that he'd be running for Mayor of Auckland City – a role regularly described as the second most important job in New Zealand – it was after seeking advice from his most trusted team members: his wife and daughters.
"This is a decision we've made as a family," the Labour- and Green-endorsed candidate says. "We feel it's a way of contributing back to a city that has given so much to us."
If elected, 47-year-old Efeso, who is of Samoan and Tokelauan descent, will be the first-ever Pasifika mayor of the largest city in Polynesia – and his family is behind him every step of the way.
The Auckland councillor lives in Ōtāhuhu with his wife Fia, 38, a diversity and inclusion specialist, and their daughters Kaperiela, nine, and Asalemo, two. Married for 11 years, the couple met at the University of Auckland, where Efeso earned an MA and was elected president of the student association, despite having once been told by a teacher he'd be lucky to even make it to tertiary education.
Wife Fia says she was drawn to Efeso's "energy and passion".
It was 2004 and Efeso was running youth-mentoring programmes when Fia, who was studying education, signed up as a mentor to encourage students at low-decile high schools to attend university. Though it would be a couple of years until they began dating, the two were drawn to each other as they were both from Samoan immigrant families and were passionate about uplifting their people.
"I found myself in his office quite a bit," smiles Fia. "I was attracted to his energy and passion to serve our Pacific communities. I was really impressed by his selflessness."
And Fia – who carries the Samoan tulafale chiefly title of Vasa from the village of Puapua on Savai'i – also made an impression on Efeso. He even learned how to referee netball to impress her!
"I remember thinking she was very pretty," he grins.
"As I got to know Fia better, I realised we made a great team. I'd dream ideas up and she was really good at asking the right questions."
Their friendship was important to Efeso when he moved to England alone, on a scholarship, to work with low-decile school students in Birmingham and started struggling with his mental health. "While I was overseas, the family had experienced some financial challenges," Efeso shares. "My mum rang me and said, 'We're going to have to help everybody.' All of a sudden, I was paying three mortgages."
Efeso lost an amazing 34 kilos to become the fit dad he is today.
Efeso didn't resent the responsibility, but the pressure started to take its toll. When he arrived back in Auckland, he reached a point of crisis.
"It was a dark time in my life," he reveals. "I was really depressed and started to feel suicidal. I felt deep levels of insignificance because I thought if I couldn't cover the mortgages, I'd be a failure to the family. There were nights where I'd just sit in the dark and weep."
Efeso tried to keep his feelings under wraps, but fortunately, Fia noticed his stress and encouraged him to open up. "One night, she came over with ice cream," he recalls. "I just sat there, crying and eating ice cream the whole night. 'Ice cream' became my code word. If I'd text it to her, Fia would turn up knowing I wasn't in a good space."
She remembers, "I saw it as a real privilege to see somebody at their lowest point. It meant a lot that he trusted me to share that side of him."
Despite his reservations that counselling was "for the weak", Efeso eventually agreed to seek help and, through therapy, he was able to process the feelings behind his depression.
"As I opened up, I found just having someone listen was really powerful for me and having friends who would turn up when I needed them countered the belief that I wasn't worth anything," he reflects. "My experiences with my mental health made me a better advocate because now I've got a lived experience. That's why I'm really into listening. I want to be a mayor who listens."
Fia and Efeso began dating in 2006, and finally married in 2011. The birth of their first child the following year was a wake-up call for Efeso.
"I was pretty heavy at the time and we've got diabetes that runs through our family," he explains. "My father died when he was 62 and my brother died when he was 39. My doctor warned me that if I continued this way, it was going to be dangerous."
For years, Efeso had resisted recommendations of weight-loss surgery, saying it felt like cheating. Instead, he tried a long list of unsuccessful diets and exercise regimes. "It was Kaperiela being born that really sealed the deal," he says. "I made a decision that I wanted to be around for her future. I had to commit to living as long as I could."
The doting dad has got daughters Kaperiela (left) and Asalemo's vote!
The bariatric surgery not only helped Efeso shed 34kg, but he found there were other unexpected benefits too. "It took me to another level in my netball reffing!" he laughs.
Efeso's dedication to his family was strengthened even more last June, when a Twitter post turned ugly. The councillor had criticised the TV show Police Ten-7 for negatively stereotyping Māori and Pacific Island youth.
The following Sunday, while preparing for church, Efeso got a disturbing phone call. "The police wanted to meet with us – they'd received a death threat against our family," he reveals, his eyes welling up.
Efeso and Fia tried their best to shelter their girls from the experience while the police sprang into action.
"Within a few hours, they had the bomb squad going through my office, the town hall and then our home," Efeso recalls. "They believed it was a genuine death threat and took every precaution."
Though thankfully it was a false alarm, the extreme and seemingly racially motivated response to Efeso's tweet was eye-opening for the family, but it only drove home the decision for Efeso to run in this October's mayoral election.
He tells, "We thought, 'If this is the highest kind of level of threat we would ever have, we've overcome it and now it's time to give back to the city.' We want this to be a place that my girls will never be fearful in – for them to feel this is where they belong and that they can safely walk the streets at night."
If he gets the gig, frontrunner Efeso plans to introduce fare-free public transport and make changes that help business thrive post-COVID, but his main message is one of connection. "I want to be a leader who brings people together – to offer a sense of unity, collaboration and resilience, so everyone says, 'Yeah, this is our city!'
"If I'm elected, it'll be the realisation of the hopes of my migrant parents, who left the known comforts of Samoa to come to a new country, working on factory floors to help build this city. It'll be a dream come true."
If you're struggling with your mental health, call or text 1737 to speak to a trained counsellor. For the Suicide Crisis Helpline, phone 0508 TAUTOKO.
In an emergency, always dial 111.

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