A Different Form of Healing Mental Health Problems Comes from New Zealand

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From Mad in America: A new paper in the journal Transcultural Psychiatry talks about a unique way of healing and helping people with mental health struggles – Mahi A Atua. The practice was developed by Māori psychiatrist Diana Kopua and Māori art and culture expert Mark A Kopua. They wrote the paper along with psychiatrist Pat Bracken.

Māori are the indigenous people of New Zealand who existed before the land was taken over by European immigrants. They were forced to learn the ways and culture of Europeans, for example, they were not allowed to speak their own language or to practice their own form of medicine.  The Māori people have faced tough times in the past because of colonization, and it has affected their mental health. That’s why it’s essential to find a way that fits their culture and beliefs.

When people feel sad, mad, or confused, they usually talk to a therapist or counselor to feel better. That’s the Western way often seen in movies and TV shows — using medicine or talk therapy. The Global Mental Health Movement has tried to spread these forms of treatment across the world, but has been criticized for using methods created in one culture on other cultures.

While it can be beneficial for some, this can also lead to a lot of harm. For example, indigenous children in Canada are often taken away from their parents without understanding the cultural practices of the community. Additionally, these treatments often take problems that are social in nature and treat them like diseases; this is called medicalization. The Māori approach, Mahi a Atua, is different. The authors write:

“There is a need to develop ways of discussing states of madness, dislocation, and distress in indigenous societies without automatically invoking the idiom, language, and assumptions of Western psychiatry.”

In other words, they write that there should be ways a society can talk about suffering and pain without immediately calling these problems diseases or disorders. This is called pathologizing.

The Māori way is about using their own traditional customs and mythological stories to help people feel better. These mythological stories are called pūrākau. Instead of just looking at one person’s problems, they think about how the whole family and community can be involved in healing. Sometimes our problems are connected to what’s happening around us and how we relate to others, so it’s important to consider external factors. 

Mahi a Atua helps people by sharing ancient stories, beliefs, and ideas. Everyone in the community already knows these stories and is familiar with them. These stories are wise lessons that can help them understand feelings and actions better. They are used to help people deal with mental health issues or problems in daily life.

For example, the authors write about a young girl who was bullying others at school, and she didn’t know why. With the help of Mahi a Atua, she realized her feelings were about not being able to communicate with her mother. In this approach, her anger was not seen as a disorder to be diagnosed but instead the girl felt like a powerful Māori god known for getting angry at injustice. Understanding this and identifying with the god helped her change her behavior and be proud of her Māori identity. The author write that Mahi A Atua is not just another type of therapy, but instead it is a:

“Process whereby Māori creation stories, or pūrākau, are explored and used to provide a set of words, ideas, images, and narratives that can help provide a matrix through which communal family, and individual challenges can be met without recourse to a ‘psychologized’ and ‘psychiatrized’ vocabulary.”

The people who wrote the article say it’s important to respect different ways of helping with mental health issues. They want more support for approaches like Mahi a Atua because they fit better with the cultures and lives of the people they’re meant to help.

The Māori approach to mental health is like a special way of understanding and healing our feelings. They use their own ancient wisdom and stories to guide them. It shows that there are different ways to take care of ourselves, and we should learn and appreciate each other’s traditions.

This article originally appeared in Mad in America and can be read here.

This is an AI generated version edited for ease of reading for a South Asian audience.


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