Honouring the role te reo Maori can plan in saving lives is one of the focuses of a collaborative campaign between Hāpai Te Hauora and the Mental Health Foundation (MHF) of New Zealand.

The campaign was launched on World Suicide Prevention Day (Sept 10), which was also the start of Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori: Māori Language Week

“We know that connection to one’s identity and culture are protective factors in terms of mental health and wellbeing,” said Janell Dymus-Kurei, Hāpai Te Hauora’s General Manager – Māori Public Health.

She said Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori reflected Hapai’s commitment to ensuring whānau wellbeing in a appropriate and culturally safe way every day, not just for one week a year. Research has also indicated that having a strong connection to Māoritanga, including confidence with Te Reo Māori, was associated with a lower risk of suicide for Māori.

Shaun Robinson, MHF chief executive said to prevent suicide in Aotearoa, “we must start thinking about what makes us stronger, what protects us, what helps us to overcome tough times”.

“Then, we need to invest in those things. Māori Language Week is an opportunity to celebrate te reo and acknowledge it as something that’s not just nice to have, but a critical tool in our kete to strengthen whānau which could go a long way to contribute to making a positive difference in our suicide statistics.”

Both organisations said mental health services in Aotearoa were “seriously underfunded and inadequate both in scope and resourcing”. They said to create meaningful change in the most in-need communities, there needed to be investment in early support not just crisis services. We need to support people before they reach breaking point.

Māori are disproportionately affected by suicide. In the latest provisional suicide statistics, the Māori suicide rate was 23.72 per 100,000, compared to 13.76 per 100,000 for the whole population.

“If we are serious about improving the experience of our whānau who are affected by mental health issues, we need to recognise that different approaches are needed,” Said Dymus-Kurei.

“Mauri Ora, a concept which doesn’t directly translate to English but which broadly speaks to the idea of holistic wellbeing, is central to a Māori perspective of health and our mental health services need to appreciate this. In Te Ao Māori, health is not a biological concept alone, it encompasses a person’s emotional, social and spiritual needs and if our approach to mental health issues was responsive to this idea, we believe it would be much more equitable and effective for Māori.”

“This is where te reo Māori has a role to play. By celebrating and promoting the use of te reo rangatira, we will help strengthen whānau, wairua and community.”

“Nō reira e hoa mā, kia kaha, kia maia, kia manawanui. Keep strong, have courage, commitment and determination to support whānau and friends through difficult times.”

Robinson said it must be remembered that suicide was preventable. “Yes, we need better services, and we also need to support resilient, thriving people. Cultural identity is vital to that.”

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