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New survey aims to improve mental health in Tonga

25 October, 2023

Interview by Caeden Tipler, adapted by Ashley-Rose Redstone

A new survey launched in Tonga aims to highlight underreported mental health concerns and the need for investment in community support services. 

A nationwide survey has been launched in Tonga, with the aim of gaining accurate and reliable mental health data about the Pacific country.

The project is a collaboration between University of Auckland researchers, the Centre for Pacific and Global Health, and the Tongan Ministry of Health, with support from the New Zealand Ministry of Health’s Polynesian Health Corridors.

Tongan Psychiatrist, Etuini Ma’u, told 95bFM’s The Wire, that the survey will help connect events like the Covid-19 pandemic and the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano eruption and tsunami in 2022, to declining mental health and the prevalence of mental health disorders including anxiety and depression. 

“I was there over the last year with a mental health team following that [the eruption], and the number of people we saw on a day-to-day basis experiencing distress was quite high.”

Ma’u said currently, there is limited data about mental health in the Pacific, and previous research attempts have struggled to obtain funding and gain participant’s trust due to social stigma.

"One of the big issues in Tonga is that there is a distrust of mental health services, and a worry that whatever they talk about will not be kept confidential."

The survey will ask participants questions about their everyday life, looking at how people are coping, whether they are enjoying their life, and whether they are feeling worried or anxious about their current situation. 

From there, the survey will determine whether the distress people are experiencing is translating through to a formal diagnosis.

“I expect the survey will find the number of people who are experiencing distress is actually higher than what we are seeing in the mental health system.”

In 2016, the World Health Organisation (WHO) reported that Aotearoa had 28.5 psychiatrists per 100,000 people. Tonga only reported 2.8 psychiatrists per 100,000 people.

Tonga has an inpatient unit, but according to Ma’u, there is little funding towards community mental health services.

By collecting data on mental health, Ma’u said Tonga can better determine what resources are needed to develop and improve the country’s mental health workforce.

“It is going to be a great source of information to advocate for an increase in resources informing health in Tonga.”

Listen to the full interview

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air