Kua hinga te tōtara i Te Waonui-a-Tāne (the tōtara has fallen in the forest of Tāne). Usually uttered with the passing of an important figure, the proverb accurately describes the state of our people. The totara, in this case, being the identity and mental state of our Māori men. It is in the nature of the tōtara to grow wide and tall, an analogy for the influence and respect a rangatira has over his people. To grow strong, inspire many and blossom collectively is in our history and creation. However, Ngai Māori currently exist in a state of survival. The historical and ongoing effects of colonisation place our people at the intersections of so many traumatic experiences. This is especially evident when looking at the state of our Māori men in Aotearoa. Their identities have been shattered through the inescapable force of expansionism. We have since lost our identities with the onset of colonisation. Finding ways to decolonise Māori male identities is vital in our journeys as Māori towards a better future for our mokopuna.
According to the Ministry of Health’s suicide statistics, Māori occupy the highest rates of suicide in New Zealand, and these rates have only increased since 2009 (13.1 per 100,000 Māori population to 18.2 in 2018). If we factor in gender and age, young Maori men occupy one of the highest rates of suicide in the world. The numbers are abhorrent and gut-wrenching. Why are our tāne in so much pain? The factors of influence are the consequences of pākehā expansionism and Eurocentric views on mental health.This includes the value Western societies place on individualism compared to collectivist cultures, as compared to Māori, who define their identity through community. I am tired of my brother’s suffering. I am tired of racist trauma-inducing rhetoric towards our people, and I am sick of a health system that doesn’t prioritise our most at-risk.
As a country, we need to understand the historical factors of influence that have led to the current indigenous mental health crisis. No matter how many times we try to dismiss its impact, colonisation has placed Māori at the intersections of racism, intergenerational trauma, land dispossession, poverty, and loss of culture. These factors, coupled with the struggles of daily life mean Māori are more susceptible to lower states of emotional and social wellbeing. With Māori placed in this position, we are set on an inevitable course to future failure. For Māori, poverty and racism are a slow apocalypse, inexorable and generational. The effect of separating Māori from our heritage cuts through the heart that pumps life through our people.
Māori men continue to be seen through colonial perspectives. New Zealand is plagued by the sentiment that Māori are in the positions we are in because we’re “lazy, stupid money-grubbers on the dole” and because we can’t “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps”. Tāne are thought of and represented by media as violent and savage. It has formed a normative and subconscious fear towards our men. Tāne are not blind. We sense this sentiment, and although it is not direct, we feel it and our identities become fractured. We begin to identify with these stereotypes. According to the Ministry of Education, this discourse distresses us even at adolescent ages, with colonial perspectives on tāne having a noted impact on suspension and expulsions in our education system. In this case, tāne begin to foster internalised racism through systemic bigotry from adolescence. This, coupled with a loss of culture, add to factors that have contributed to a Māori male identity crisis. We as tāne are capable of so much. We are more than what these stereotypes deem us to be. We can be intelligent, caring, and sensitive. We can be critical actors for social change and are capable of doing whatever we dream of.
The Māori experience before the arrival of pākehā informs us of possible solutions to this identity crisis. We were once a connected people that has become fractured and displaced due to colonisation. By looking back to pre-colonial Māori society, we can gain a sense of Māori male identity with our past informing our present, and hopefully, our future. Prior to colonisation, Māori identity schemes were centred around our future capacity for growth and whanaungatanga (familial and social relationships through shared experience that fosters a sense of belonging). Our identities were solidified through an interconnected sense of wellbeing and our place in the world rooted in the land we whakapapa back to. Revitalising a sense of identity is vital in our whakaora (healing) journey as Māori. I also extend these ideas to our Pacific Island brothers. Although we are in different boats, we share the same river of life in our waka and you in your Va’a.
All these factors are exacerbated by the state of New Zealand’s mental health system. August 2020 saw NZ’s Chief Ombudsman release a call for action addressing current issues within our mental health institutions. Two mental health facilities were found to breach the United Nations convention against torture “and other cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment or punishment”. The knowledge is there on how to improve our systems. Still, we are hindered by a lack of investment and Eurocentric perspectives on what mental health is. The system isn’t equipped to deal with mental health, let alone the mental health of our indigenous people. Our healthcare system needs to continue to look towards Māori-centered primary health care community initiatives as examples in addressing their own inadequacies. To effectively treat our people, our systems need to display a reflection on Māori perspectives. This means health care that is carried, delivered, and controlled by Māori healthcare specialists. Our health care system shouldn’t have to rely on community-funded initiatives because of government underfunding in its national healthcare schemes. The importance of addressing mental health according to one’s culture cannot be overstated. Implementing cultural-based initiatives grounded in Māori values and perspectives means we can shift the intergenerational trauma of our people into intergenerational wellbeing.
We are in dire need of mental health reform. In my experience as a health care worker, mental health institutions are unequipped to handle this mass decline in our populations’ mental health. As a health care assistant and therapeutic observer at North Shore Hospital, part of my mahi is interacting with mental health patients. It is immediately evident that our institutions are unable to handle the influx of complex mental health issues. Beds at Waiatarau and He Puna inpatient units are frequently at full capacity leaving unequipped emergency departments to deal with patients in need of specialised care. Covid 19 has also put pressure on our health system, widening cracks that were always present. The development of the therapeutic observer role within North Shore Hospital’s ED Department has shown great promise in accommodating MH patients in their healing journey and speaks to possible initiatives in the future of New Zealand health care.
Reconnecting with pre-colonial Māori concepts of self will shift our tāne towards positive identities. Up until this point, survival was winning for Māori. Now, we need to journey towards an Aotearoa where Māori exist, not in a state of survival, but in a state of healing. Healing from our intergenerational mamae and healing from the force of colonialism. Nothing will extinguish our mana as Māori. Supporting our tāne in healing will help our culture progress towards its decolonisation. Much like our voyage from Hawaiki to Aotearoa, the journey is long. But we’ve finished that journey before, and we will again.