Mamaeroa Merito (Te Arawa), Tumuaki, President of Te Mana Ākonga, the National Māori Tertiary Students' Association reflects on what Matariki means for her and tauira Māori in light of increasing mental health needs in the student community.

Matariki is a time of both celebration and reflection for Māori. The rising of nine stars heralds in our New Year and has the ability to forecast what the year ahead has in store for us. Nowadays, most kiwi’s see it as a celebration, a time to feast and relax, but for my ancestors it carried much more significance and complexity.

A lesser-known attribute of Matariki is the connection to the deceased. Amongst the stars right next to Matariki sits Te Waka-o-Rangi. This waka is captained by Taramainuku who casts his net (Te Kupenga-a-Taramainuku) every night during the year to gather the souls of our deceased and at the setting of Matariki, would guide their souls into the underworld. “Kua wheturangitia koe - you have now become a star” is the whakataukī that encapsulates this kōrero, referring to the notion that the souls of our deceased loved ones took their place in the sky as stars as Taramainuku completed this act at the end of Matariki.

I touch on this story because at the setting of Matariki this year after Taramainuku carries his net to the underworld, a new star will appear in the sky. A university tauira Māori that took their own life last year.

This Matariki, many of our tauira will look towards the sky, not in celebration or happiness but in mamae over a fellow tauira and friend that we lost too early in this life.

Te Mana Ākonga recognises the many pressures put on our tauira such as allowances, affordable decent housing, and debt/loans to mention a few. These pressures all contribute to the mental illness, distress and lack of wellbeing experienced by to many tauira during their studies.

It’s hard enough to be tauira in tertiary education, even harder to be a Māori one. In response to dire need for support services, we established a Te Mana Ākonga working group dedicated to understanding and advocating for tauira Māori mental health needs. We are known as Te Oranga Tauira o Te Mana Ākonga.

Through this working group we have identified multiple barriers which impede our tauira from accessing or utilising the student support services available to them. There are trends that are consistent with our Pākehā counterparts (long and drawn out waiting times for services such as counselling) and problems that are unique to our tauira Māori (even longer waiting times to see Māori counsellors if they have one, due to lower to no availability).

In knowing these issues (and many more) it is now our duty and responsibility to step up and advocate for the necessary system, practice, and institutional changes needed to ensure the needs of our tauira are met.

We can’t change what happened last year to our fellow tauira and friend, but we can work to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

Matariki for most of us will be a time of celebration and reflection. In our instance, as tauira Māori, it will be a time for healing. There are enough stars in the sky, we don’t need any more of our tauira to join them.