A Better Start National Science Challenge has awarded Dr Karolina Stasiak and Tania Cargo from the University of Auckland $1.4 million over 2 and a quarter years to pilot the implementation of tools into schools in South Auckland, to increase access to quality support for rangatahi well-being.

Improving access to mental health services and preventing mental health difficulties for rangatahi is a Government priority, particularly since the launch of the Child Youth and Wellbeing Strategy in August 2019.

The challenge’s mission is to work to ensure the best possible start in life. This challenge is focused on rangatahi mental health to ensure that rangatahi are able to have wellbeing initiatives implemented at a time when they are most likely to need them. The research team is directly addressing this by developing and implementing tools to support wellness, responding to a key national challenge, that New Zealand continues to have the highest rangatahi suicide rate in the OECD countries. The research team’s work aligns with policy direction as part of He Ara Oranga, The Report of Government Inquiry into Mental Health and Addition, which includes an e-Health strategy; and the New Zealand Suicide Prevention Strategy 2019–2029 and Suicide Prevention Action Plan 2019–2024 (Every Life Matters; He Tapu te Oranga o ia tangata).

Phase 2 builds on phase 1 evidence and is focused on the implementation of HABITs into real world school settings to increase access to quality support for young people and their whānau to build resilience early in the life course. In phase 1 of the Challenge a digital ecosystem called HABITs (Health Advances Through Behavioural Interventions) was developed. HABITs provides a safe and secure platform that allows the ability to screen and identify users who could benefit from a  host of e-Health interventions provided on the platform, monitor their usage, track changes, provide referral support for more urgent services if needed, and provide data for future upgrades.

The team will also work with A Better Start’s Big Data theme to explore approaches to long-term tracking of outcomes and ensure that data sovereignty issues addressed. One outcome of the project will be a toolkit that will provide guidance about how to sustainably implement HABITs into schools. This will enable full scale implementation throughout New Zealand, preferably via joint Ministry of Health and Education support and funding, with whom the research team has ongoing engagement.

Given the Treaty of Waitangi and the importance of partnership, participation and protection, rangatahi Māori and their whānau must have access to at least bi-cultural interventions, which have been shown to work. This means implementing HABITs into more schools nationally, implementing HABITs as a digital youth hub, hosting evidence-based BITS, including those of other developers, implementing a Kaupapa Māori qualitative study and implementing HABITs as an online clinical trials centre.

HABITs provides an opportunity for rangatahi Māori to access support through the types of medium that rangatahi engage in, at a time and place when it might be most helpful for them. Previous Māori digital mental health research has found that rangatahi Māori would access digital health tools when they were culturally relevant, including the use of Te Reo Māori and when whānau were included.

“The aim of the implementation of HABITs is to increase the uptake, engagement and reach of e-Health interventions via schools to create an integrative care approach, which improves both mental health and educational outcomes for teens longer term,” says Professor Wayne Cutfield, Director of A Better Start National Science Challenge.

“This includes ensuring Māori cultural values are embedded and evaluated in our approach,” he says.

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