Supporting the mental health needs of Pacific climate change migrants

posted: 6:00 pm - 7th July 2019
Jemaima Tiatia Seath e Tangata

(Picture caption: Dr Jemaima Tiatia-Seath has received a Pacific Project grant to study how New Zealand could ready its health system to best support the mental health needs of Pacific climate change migrants. Photo: E-Tangata.) 

With climate change affecting many people in the Pacific region, New Zealand has emerged as a potential relocation destination for those displaced by rising sea levels and other climate change related natural disasters.

In light of this, co-head of the School of Māori Studies and Pacific Studies at the University of Auckland Dr Jemaima Tiatia-Seath has received a Pacific Project grant from the Health Research Council of New Zealand (HRC) to explore how New Zealand could ready its health system to best support the mental health needs of Pacific climate change migrants.

The study will involve research sites in New Zealand, Niue and the Cook Islands.

Jemaima says very few people in the Pacific region will be unaffected by climate change, particularly as half the population live within 1.5 kilometres of the ocean.

“Rapid rises in sea level, more severe cyclones and floods, and changes to seasonal weather are all occurring in the Pacific and are attributed to climate change,” she adds.

Migration is an indirect impact of climate change and one estimate is that 75 million people from the Asia-Pacific region will be forced to migrate by 2050 because of it.

“Much of the health research done to date has largely focused on the physical health problems associated with climate change – the mental health impacts have only recently been recognised.”

Pacific peoples forced to relocate will likely be at higher risk of negative mental health challenges due to the cultural loss and stress of climate-induced migration, Jemaima continues.

“An understanding of this issue in New Zealand’s mental health sector is vital.

“Mental health services will need to cater to Pacific climate change migrants in culturally-inclusive ways and recognise the new challenges that migration and forced relocation will bring to the already visible barriers to mental health access for Pacific peoples.”

Manager of Pacific research investment at HRC Tolotea Lanumata says this study is very timely as the New Zealand Government has made looking at the impacts of climate change a priority.

“Climate change is predicted to have a substantial negative effect on global mental health,” Tolotea says.

“This study gives New Zealand the chance to get on the front-foot and prepare our health system for the mental health challenges that climate change will likely have on Pacific communities,” she says.

The HRC has awarded funding for four Pacific project grants worth a combined total of $2.37 million.

These grants form part of the HRC’s $81 million investment in new research projects and programmes announced recently by Minister of Research, Science and Innovation Hon. Dr Megan Woods.

Pacific Project grants support research that contributes to better health outcomes for Pacific peoples, families and communities. 

Jemaima’s project is one of several who received 2019 Pacific Projects grants – the full list is as follows: 

  • Dr Allamanda Faatoese, University of Otago
    Environmental effects on cardiometabolic biomarkers in Pacific peoples (36 months, $594,804);
  • Professor Steven Ratuva, University of Canterbury
    Enrichment of community health through targeted social protection strategies (36 months, $588,534);  
  • Dr Gerhard Sundborn, The University of Auckland
    Understanding scabies prevalence to improve the health of Pasifika/Māori kids (36 months, $594,346); and
  • Dr Jemaima Tiatia-Seath, The University of Auckland
    Climate change and mental wellbeing: The impacts on Pacific peoples
    (36 months, $589,691).