NZ Mental Health Awareness Week: Dr Etuini Ma’u shares reflections and insights into mental health
Updates / News, 18 Sep 23
Pasifika Medical Association was honored to have experienced psychiatrist Dr Etuini Ma’u, present and contribute to the discussions pertaining to mental health, at the 2023 PMA Conference, held recently in the Cook Islands. Dr Ma’u shares with us his reflections and insights into the challenges that Pacific peoples face regarding mental health.

Pacific peoples are negatively represented in a lot of statistics pertaining to mental health, what are your thoughts on this and what are some avenues going forward in addressing this?

Pacific peoples in New Zealand are a young, vibrant, and growing population. Our strength lies in the strong connections we have with our community and culture, buffering us from many of life’s challenges.  Despite this, we are over represented in many mental health statistics, including levels of psychological distress, mental illness, and suicide.  The reasons for this are largely systemic and include:

  1. The social determinants of health and overrepresentation in higher levels of deprivation that significantly impact wellbeing, quality of life, and access to health care

  2. A Western understanding of mental illness that may not align with Pacific conceptualisations of health and wellbeing.

  3. A health system not designed to meet specific needs of Pacific peoples

 The combination of poorer access and lower quality care not only result in higher levels of psychological distress but also poorer outcomes for those who are able to access the health system.   Addressing the drivers of structural inequity in our health system is imperative to improve the mental health and wellbeing of our Pacific communities. Just as the drivers of poorer mental health statistics are multifactorial, so too are the solutions. These include

  1. Meaningfully addressing the social determinants of health and breaking the cycle of deprivation and poverty

  2. Working in and with communities to improve mental health literacy and reduce stigma

  3. Upskilling the mental health workforce to better understand Pacific manifestations of psychological distress and conceptualisations of health and illness

  4. Tapping into our Pacific knowledge and expertise to design and tailor healthcare services that meet our need.

What are some of the highlights for you from the 2023 PMA Conference in the discussions that took place around mental health? 

Mental health sessions at the 2023 PMA conference challenged Western paradigms of mental health and service delivery. The highlight for me was the Mental Health panel on the final morning, with speakers from around the Pacific region discussing challenges and opportunities in mental health. Common themes raised by speakers from Samoa, Vanuatu, Cook Islands, Fiji, and NZ centered around addressing improving community mental health literacy, reducing stigma, increasing mental health workforce capacity, and the importance of culture specific approaches to the assessment and management of psychological distress and mental illness. Another highlight was the presentation by Associate Professor Sione Vaka on the Ūloa model of mental health care and applying this to the assessment, intervention, and care of Pacific people with dementia in NZ.

What are your thoughts on the theme of this years NZ Mental Health Awareness Week? (5 Days, 5 Ways)?

The “five ways, five days” theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week contains simple,  practical tips to help us refocus on the things that matter when things gets hard. The wellbeing tips also resonate well with our Pacific values of nurturing relationships, generosity, and staying grounded. 

On a personal note, my research interests are in dementia prevention and this focus on wellbeing dovetails well with the World Alzheimer’s month of  “Never too early, never too late” which centres on risk reduction for dementia. The emphasis on an active body, active mind, and maintaining social connectedness are a succinct summary of what we can do to reduce the risk of dementia in ourselves and our communities.

For more information on NZ Mental Health Awareness Week, please refer to