A new research project, led by Dr Octavia Calder-Dawe aims to find out what wellbeing actually means to young New Zealanders.

Calder-Dawe, from Massey University’s SHORE and Whāriki Research Centre has been awarded an emerging researcher grant of nearly $250,000 from the Health Research Council of New Zealand. Working with her will be fellow SHORE and Whāriki Research Centre researchers Emerald Muriwai (Whakatōhea) and Victoria Lesatele.

“Aotearoa New Zealand has a youth mental health ‘crisis’ on its hands,” says Dr Calder-Dawe.

“We have the highest adolescent suicide rate in the OECD, and high levels of self-harming and distress among young people.

“We need to do more to support the wellbeing of our young people – and to do more, we need to know more about their understandings of wellbeing and the language they use to describe it. This exploratory research actively involves young people in policy and primary prevention conversations, working with young people in a collaborative, culturally responsive and relevant way,” Dr Calder-Dawe says.

“Importantly, the research has potential to validate and also to challenge the existing wellbeing knowledge base and measures, and we anticipate it will illuminate contemporary, local and culturally-specific influences on young people’s wellbeing that are not yet identified.”

Dr Calder-Dawe says this work is important because it will provide a sound platform for refining health messaging and interventions addressing youth wellbeing in Aotearoa New Zealand. “Through advancing and updating knowledge on youth wellbeing, we can better inform policymakers, health promoters and clinicians. Ultimately, this work aims to benefit all young people living in Aotearoa.”

The research project, entitled ‘Working on Wellbeing with Young People’, investigates how young New Zealanders talk about wellbeing, and its facilitators and constraints. The proposed research has a two-part design and will be carried out over three years.

Dr Calder-Dawe says in the first phase, 60 Aucklanders aged 16-18 will participate in semi-structured interviews exploring their understanding of wellbeing. “Secondly, interviewees will be invited to participate in a two-day workshop where key findings from the interviews will be collaboratively explored and discussed with health sector representatives.

“This research fills the need for an in-depth, qualitative understanding of diverse young people’s perceptions of wellbeing. The project’s design will also ensure that young people are participants in the policy and primary prevention conversations that concern them,” Dr Calder-Dawe says.

Health Central’s Q&A with Calder-Dawe:

What led you to studying youth wellbeing?

I’ve had a long-standing research interest in young people and social justice, particularly in terms of sexism and homophobia, and more recently in terms of ableism. My research training in psychology started me on this research pathway and I haven’t wanted to stray from it – I love working with teenagers on social justice issues – and in this project we are framing wellbeing as a health issues and a social justice issue.

Do you have any hypotheses around how NZ youth regard wellbeing?

We have a clear picture of what some of the big ticket items will be: exposure to violence, bullying and discrimination undermines wellbeing, whereas economic security, strong whanau/family relationships, good physical health and cultural efficacy support wellbeing. But we’re also hypothesising that as society changes, young people’s language for wellbeing and their ideas about what’s important will change – and we’re hoping to tap into those new dimensions.

Is it different engaging with young people than it is engaging with adults for research? If yes, how?

Each research project is different, just as each person is different, so it’s hard to generalise. I think if there was one thing I’d put my finger on, it’s that I find young people are energised about the world and up for blue skies conversations in a way adults sometimes aren’t. I think young people are also more used to learning on-the-go and to being creative, so they tend to excel in participatory research projects – that’s something we’re hoping to tap into during this research.

How do you find a wide variety of young people to interview?

You make sure you have multiple starting points, and you don’t stop recruiting until you have a range of strong voices. We often draw on community connections and contacts we have as researchers – people are more likely to give you their time if you are known and have proven yourself.

How does your feminism inform your research?

Feminism offers really useful theoretical tools for understanding how society gets into our heads. For example, the ideas society has about gender shapes the way we think individually about our bodies, our relationships, our capabilities and our futures – in other words, there are big consequences for wellbeing. Good feminist research is also intersectional, analysing the influence of gender on wellbeing alongside the powerful influences of ethnicity, culture and racism; sexuality, homophobia and heterosexism, disability and ableism – to name just a few important axes of identity and experience.

I think this comes through in the collaborative, intersectional design of the project – it is a partnership between three researchers, Samoan, Māori and Pakeha – and the participatory design that’s about creating a space for youth voice, and connecting young people to the policy and mental health primary prevention conversations that concern them intimately.

Are there any countries which have done work on youth and wellbeing which could be good examples for NZ?

Many nations and communities are doing great work in this space – it’s a huge field! This research is exploratory and deliberately takes a local, grassroots approach – while respecting the research that is taking place elsewhere, we see value specificity and in looking to and listening to rangatahi living here, and learning from their experiences.

Where to get help:

• Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
• Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
• Youth services: (06) 3555 906
• Youthline: 0800 376 633
• Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
• Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
• The Word
• Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
• Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
• CASPER Suicide Prevention

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

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