Māori health practitioners call for stronger incorporation of rongoā Māori into Western clinical methods

Māori health practitioners are calling for cultural concepts to be more strongly incorporated into Western clinical methods to improve mental health. 

Rongoā Māori is alternative health care that incorporates both physical and spiritual well-being. Mauri, meaning the life force, and wairua, the spirit, are commonly used words at rongoā Māori clinics.

Ngāpuhi practitioner Kate Taylor-Reid was unfamiliar with the traditional Māori healing practices until she tried them as part of her recovery from a traumatic brain injury she suffered 12 years ago in a horse riding accident.

"It was like someone just switched the lights back on. But along with that, it's kind of like, if you're talking about wairua, if you went into the kitchen and turned on every appliance at once, it was kind of like that," Taylor-Reid told Newshub.

Taylor-Reid is referring to spiritual experiences. She said they wouldn't have happened if she'd stuck to Western treatments but she believes they're an important part of the healing process, even if they can be overwhelming. 

"For about a year it was just too much, and I can imagine that's how people end up with mental illness because it's this huge influx of wairua that you don't know how to cope with," Taylor-Reid said. "So from there I sort of found different modalities."

As she explored those different modalities, tohunga told her she was spiritually gifted and their teachings helped her cope.

"So not only the things that I naturally had but about 20 other things that were very overwhelming," Taylor-Reid said. "It was like being able to see inside everyone's body and know exactly what had happened to them."

This personal journey led her to sell up everything she owned to trace the footsteps of her ancestors, both Māori and European, and learn the ancient practice of rongoā from her relatives who still practised.

"Eventually I couldn't bare to do my corporate job anymore, it became so painful until I had to do the mahi. I had no choice in the matter."

The mahi she's talking about wasn't her old job, it was the work she needed to do with rongoā Māori and has continued ever since as a practitioner.

Kate Taylor-Reid.
Kate Taylor-Reid. Photo credit: Newshub.

Gisborne-based tohunga, or Māori healer, Wiremu Niania has seen many people go through the same process.

"People are starting to understand that maybe they aren't crazy, that they see and hear things. Some things we have got to normalise that experience," Niania told Newshub.

Niania said Māori have spiritual experiences that in the Western world are described as psychotic episodes. 

Māori are more often left undiagnosed, or if they end up in the mental health system, they are more likely to be secluded, imprisoned, or overly medicated.

"If we can learn to understand one another, there may be that healing for all of us," Niania said.

In 2014, Niania won the prestigious Ashton Wylie Book Award, co-authoring with psychiatrist Dr Allistar Bush about Māori healing. 

For over a decade, the pair worked to weave Western medicine and Māori healing practices together.

"I actually worked with a beautiful, beautiful psychologist who was prepared to put his reputation on the line to listen to te ao Māori," Niania said.

This is because supporting rongoā Māori can be controversial in our Eurocentric health system.

Some healing ideas, such as the putting right of incidents experienced by ancestors, are hard for some to get their head around, but Taylor-Reid was able to do it.

"I had to go on that journey to find out who I was and to stand on the whenua of all of my ancestors and then come back here before I properly start my mahi up here where I am supposed to be," Taylor-Reid said.

But things are changing in health care. Te Aka Whai Ora, the new Māori Health Authority, is funding 34 registered rongoā Māori service providers across Aotearoa. They treat, on average, 20,000 clients a year.

Māori health practitioners call for stronger incorporation of rongoā Māori into Western clinical methods