Hinemoa Elder calls for end to 'structural racism' against Māori in New Zealand

The sudden loss of her brother, Maru, in 1999 had a profound effect on Dr Hinemoa Elder, and it still does today.  

His mental illness stole him from her family bit by bit, until the end, when he took his own life. 

Maru's death taught Dr Elder about the nature of living, and how tortured some peoples' inner worlds are.

It ignited a deep yearning for her to want to make a change in other people's lives, bringing the pain she experienced with her in her work, so others one day may be sheltered from such hurt. 

"His legacy is about the critical importance of working on a shared non-judgmental understanding of what people are going through," she told Newshub.

The leading psychiatrist is determined to uncover factors behind mental illness through her work with young Māori, and is on a mission to make a difference to the lives of those hurting most in New Zealand. 

Hinemoa Elder calls for end to 'structural racism' against Māori in New Zealand

"It is not a level playing field - a very important issue that I've - both from the literature but also from my own experience - seen," Dr Elder says. 

Specialising in youth neuropsychiatric assessment and treatment for Māori with traumatic brain injuries, Dr Elder, who qualified as a doctor in 1998, says there is a link between structural racism and mental health in young indigenous people that society must acknowledge and address. 

"We know that if you live in poverty and you're an indigenous person, you've got a greater risk of being subject to the stressors that make you vulnerable to having those problems," she says. 

"We have an inequitable system, we have structural racism in our country that we've got to continue to name, and talk about and talk about how we can dismantle those structures which perpetuate racism which, frankly, is what makes people mentally ill."  

Hinemoa Elder calls for end to 'structural racism' against Māori in New Zealand

New Zealand's youth suicide figures are among the worst in the world, and those for young Māori are three times worse than for young pākeha.

Dr Elder's understanding of New Zealand's structural racism problem is shared by others.  

Hollywood actor Taika Waititi said in an interview last year that New Zealand is a great place, but it is also "a racist place". 

Waititi told UK magazine Dazed in April last year that his memories of growing up were tainted by incidents where he was racially profiled or treated differently because of his skin colour. 

"I remember getting a job at a dairy and they would never give me a job at the till I was always at the back, washing vegetables. And then one day one of the owners asked me if I sniffed glue, like, 'Are you a glue-sniffer?' In my head I was like, 'Motherf**ker, you grew up with my mum!' And I knew for sure that he didn't ask other kids in the store if they were glue-sniffers." 

The director, who lives in Los Angeles with his family, said despite his overwhelming success, he faces patronising comments as an adult when he returns home. 

"People in Auckland are very patronising. They're like, 'Oh, you've done so well, haven't you? For how you grew up. For one of your people.'"

Dr Elder, a former television presenter and actor, sees manifestations in indigenous people formed from secrets kept about the history of colonisation of New Zealand. 

Every day, she says, historical trauma still impacts the Māori community, children, their parents and grandparents. 

Hinemoa Elder calls for end to 'structural racism' against Māori in New Zealand

'There is systemic racism' - Children's Commissioner


One in three complaints to the Human Rights Commission is about racial discrimination, but not everyone who believes that they have been discriminated against will make a complaint. 

In the five years ending June 30, 2018, there has been a steady increase in the total number of enquiries and complaints received by the commission. 

Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft told Newshub that the best evidence and research confirms an interplay between the enduring legacy of colonisation and contemporary unconscious bias. 

"This leads to the inevitable conclusion that there is systemic racism in every area of decision making in New Zealand, and across all branches of Government," he said. 

"Children and young people tell us consistently that their lived experience is consistent with this view." 

Hinemoa Elder calls for end to 'structural racism' against Māori in New Zealand

In 2017, Waiti appeared in a video for the New Zealand Human Rights Commission aimed to address the undertones of inequality in his home country. 

"Racism needs your help to survive," he said in the video. You may not be in a position to give much to racism, but whatever you feel comfortable giving will make a huge difference.

"You don't have to be a full-on racist, just being a tiny racist is enough. A smile, a cheeky giggle, even a simple nod in agreement, it all adds up, and it gives others the message it's okay."

Reduce the stigma


Dr Elder, who has published research on indigenous approaches to working with Māori children, says the more that we can all start to have conversations; to talk about feelings, to talk about connection, to talk about our relationships, to talk about healing, to talk about grief and loss, to talk about trauma, to help our community we can bring forward our history as a country.  

She also believes we must disrupt negative connotations associated with hardships and is encouraging people to think differently and stop demonising issues such as anxiety, depression and psychosis. 

Hinemoa Elder calls for end to 'structural racism' against Māori in New Zealand

"These need to be seen within the broad range of human experiences which interrupt people's lives and prevent people from enjoying all the things that everyone has the right to," she says.

While her work can be challenging and overwhelming, Dr Elder says she feels privileged to see people healing.

"Seeing whanau really standing in their own mana and their own self-determination and determining how whanau wants to do that themselves and that's incredibly inspiring for me." 

This year Dr Elder was recognised in the Queen's Birthday Honours, being made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for her services to psychiatry and Māori.