A wave of migrants driven from the Pacific by climate change could pose even greater challenges for New Zealand's mental health services.

While there have only been a few cases of migrants trying to claim refugee status in New Zealand because of climate-driven impacts - all of which have failed - that is expected to change this century.

Projections show that even a further 2C of warming could see small island countries inundated by sea level rise - with the 180,000 people living in low-lying Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands among the most threatened.

Another estimate predicted that some 75 million people from the wider Asia-Pacific region would be forced to shift by 2050 because of climate change.

Advertisement

"Very few people in the Pacific region will be unaffected by climate change, particularly as half the population live within 1.5km of the ocean," said Dr Jemaima Tiatia-Seath, co-head of the School of Māori Studies and Pacific Studies at the University of Auckland.

"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."

While much of the health research done to date has largely focused on the physical health problems associated with climate change, mental health impacts have only recently been recognised.

Tiatia-Seath said Pacific peoples forced to relocate would likely be at higher risk of negative mental health challenges, because of the cultural loss and stress of climate-induced migration.

"An understanding of this issue in New Zealand's mental health sector is vital," she said.

"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."

A three-year study just launched by Tiatia-Seath, to be carried out here, Niue and the Cook Islands, and which has received a $589,000 grant from the Health Research Council (HRC), will look at what preparations need to be made.

HRC Pacific research investment manager Tolotea Lanumata said the study was timely, given that the Government has made looking at the impacts of climate change a priority.

Advertisement

"Climate change is predicted to have a substantial negative effect on global mental health," Lanumata said.

"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."