3 Jul 2017

Brighter Future? Hard path to hauora pai

Broadcaster Kingi Taurua has struggled with depression for much of his adult life
From Is this the Brighter Future?, 6:00 am on 3 July 2017

Walking across the porch of Mangere's Ngā Whare Waatea wharenui, Kura Ratapu points out the smokers' hub, a makeshift lean-to with a view out across the marae.

The Radio Waatea newsreader has spent much time at the hub over the years, chatting and smoking with others.

But Ms Ratapu is among a slowly growing group of Māori who have given up tobacco in recent years.

In June 2007, 42 percent of Māori adults were smokers, but that had declined to 39 percent by June 2016.

It's still high though - more than twice the general smoking rate - and falling more slowly than among the general population.

And Ms Ratapu was saddened to realise that her habit has been picked up by a younger member of her whānau.

"Breaks my heart ever since I found out she was a smoker, cos she knows it kills; we all know it kills - it's horrible."

While there have been some isolated successes in Māori hauora since 2008, it doesn't take much analysis to notice that progress has been slower among Māori for almost every indicator - and in some areas, the statistics have worsened.

Take life expectancy. Māori men and women can expect to live longer, and the gap between Māori and non-Māori has narrowed to seven years.

Kaumatua Kingi Taurua is nearing his 70s, but as a Vietnam Vet serving his country he said its led to a number of health issues including PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).

Kingi Taurua Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

But don't expect the quality of the senior years to be as fulfilling for Māori as for Pākehā.

Health expectancy - the age someone can expect to live to without assistance - fell from 60 years to 54 years of age for Māori men between 2006 and 2013, the most recent year it was measured.

It improved for non-Māori men over the same time period, and there's now a 13-year gulf between the two groups.

Time spent living with a disability is worse for both Māori men and women.

Kura Ratapu believes the hard labouring jobs that Māori men have traditionally filled is one reason for the difference.

"Freezing workers, on the wharf but now working on the roads, garbos on the rubbish trucks - all those manual types of labour."

Lifting heavy spirits

Working alongside Ms Ratapu is her colleague and war veteran Kingi Taurua, who's nearing 70.

His time fighting in Vietnam led to a number of health issues, he says.

"It really affected me with post-traumatic stress disorder and cancer and heart problems.

"I'm still having problems with it and sometimes I find it really difficult to cope."

Mr Taurua has fought depression for years but credits his job and the many activities he participates in as tools for fighting off suicidal tendencies.

Of all the health disparities between Māori and Pākehā, the relative suicide rates are among the most frightening.

The rate has reduced since 2008 for Pākehā but increased for Māori. The gap between youth suicide rates is especially large - Māori youth are now three times as likely to commit suicide than non-Māori.

Provisional numbers from the Coroners Office's show 51 young people committed suicide in 2016 - 34 of them Māori.

A teenage Māori boy looking unhappy

 Māori youth are now three times as likely to commit suicide than non-Māori Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

When Māori whānau do seek help, they report feeling rebuffed.

When King Country mother Ngaia Henare noticed cuts on her daughter's arms, it confirmed her suspicions the teenager was depressed and suicidal.

But she's struggled to get the help she believes her daughter needs.

"The first person that we saw, he said, 'You know, this is typical Māori girls.'"

"Just that alone made me angry but it was almost like he was saying 'it's just another one', you know?"

When Ms Henare asked for care assistance the decision was left up to her daughter, who declined help.

That was wrong, Ms Henare says - when dealing with suicidal young people, she wants a plan to be made with the whole whānau, not just the child.

Without her family she doesn't know what she would have done, she says.

"If I didn't have the support of my family I'm pretty sure things wouldn't have gone so well with my daughter.

"It was 24-hour watch for her and being a single mother I had to rely on people coming here so I could continue to work."

The gap between male Māori and Pākehā has widened since 2008

The gap between male Māori and Pākehā has widened since 2008 Photo: RNZ / Statistics NZ

Of all the paid and professional health staff Ms Henare came in contact with, it was the unpaid volunteer and entertainer Mike King who made a difference.

"He straight away was asking all these questions and it actually felt like he cared about [my daughter]," she says.

"Knowing that he does that for many other kids, it's cool to know that even though he's busy he cared enough."

Mr King quit the government's suicide prevention panel earlier this year, saying it ignored key recommendations and continued to fund failed experiments.

In te reo Māori, 'kia piki te ora' is the phrase used when someone is sick - lift your spirits.

In 2017, there's some heavy lifting still to do.

Where to get help

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

RNZ's election series Is this the Brighter Future? examines the government's record since it was elected in 2008. Read more here.

Main image: Kaumatua Kingi Taurua's time serving New Zealand in the Vietnam War has left him with ongoing health issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder (RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly)