Experts celebrate Māori Health Authority to reduce inequities in NZ's 'horrifically underfunded' health system

Māori health experts say the Government's new Māori Health Authority is an "amazing step" forward in reducing inequities in New Zealand's "horrifically underfunded" health system.

In a special episode of The Hui focussing on the health of tāne Māori [men], the panellists were asked if the new health authority could help Māori struggling with mental health issues.

Māori men are twice as likely as non-Māori males to report a high probability of having an anxiety or depressive disorder and research has shown they are also underserved by the mental health system.

Matthew Tukaki of the NZ Māori Council said he believes the authority is one of the answers, however, it's not going to be an easy task.

"I've been an advocate for suicide prevention and mental health for I don't know how many years now... searching the perennial answer to the question. 

"We have a deep-seated problem with mental health in this country, the statistics don't lie, it bears it out. I think during COVID-19 it has been amplified even further. We have a lot of anxious people out there - particularly Māori - with Māori losing their jobs, so on and so forth. 

"There is great hope with the Māori Health Authority. It's got to be a bold and brave Government that says we are going to take this kaupapa and we are going to see if we can get this stood up within this term of Government and get some trains moving away from the station. But we can't be devoid of the task ahead, it's going to be a big, big task."

The Government announced the Māori Health Authority in April, which will work in partnership with Health NZ to commission care across the country, ensuring the needs and expectations of Māori are met through design and delivery. 

It came after a Health and Disability System Review found Māori have "not been served well by the system" and the system "has not delivered Māori health and wellbeing outcomes that are fair".

Dr Jordan Te Whaiti-Smith from Medical Research Institute NZ told The Hui on Monday the authority is an "amazing step" to improve a health system that is "horrifically underfunded".

"Five years ago this was a twinkle in somebody's eye but now they are pledged that it's happening."

Immunologist Dr Anthony Jordan agreed the Māori Health Authority was a chance for "us to put our footprint in the stand and say we are going to make a go of this because it may not come around again". 

Mental health advocate Mike King has recently expressed disappointment in New Zealand's mental health system and chose to return his New Zealand Order of Merit medal which he received for services to mental health awareness and suicide prevention.

"The reason I am taking this back is because I want people who are struggling to know that I see you, we see you, we feel you and I am going to do everything in my power, everything I've got until my last breath making sure that whatever Government is in power - things are going to change," King said.

"And if Jacinda [Ardern] and everyone else thinks I am going away, you're sadly, sadly mistaken, I haven't even begun to fight."

Tukaki agreed the "mental health system is in crisis" and he hopes the Māori Health Authority will help to improve it.

"Mike has a really big and important point, the problem hasn't gone away, it's been here for a long time and it's intergenerational, and when are we going to stop talking about doing something and actually do something." 

He told The Hui he hopes there will be more focus from health professionals on understanding patients' health whakapapa.

"[I hope they focus on] not just mine from when I was born to how old I am now but what are the things that have gone on in my family history that provide future markers for my health and wellbeing, for example: health attacks, high blood pressure, cholesterol," he said. 

"It is large in the male side of my whānau so I want them to better understand me. instead of judging me, ask me those questions so we can better understand together what needs to happen."

Tukaki said it's particularly important with mental health issues which "doesn't just appear in a whānau overnight". 

"It is often something that is symptomatic of the broader whānau group and so what more could we learn from that as well. I have great hopes [for the authority]."

Director of health Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Whātua Boyd Paratene told The Hui he has seen a lack of investment in mental health firsthand.

"If you go to prison you automatically get $99,000 a year spent on you.  If you show up with a mental health problem - a middle-aged Māori man - you can get three free clinic appointments with a psychologist or counsellor - three. That's nowhere near the cost of $99,000 a year. We don't invest and that issue and a life-saving thing is to give them more."