Māori experiences of NZ's mental health services

For Tui Taurua-Peihopa, being in the water is her lifeline to her tūpuna.

"Water is very important - I need to be around it - I need to be in it. I see very clearly that I'm in the womb of my tūpuna."

Her connection to water and to the natural world has helped her to heal.

From the mid-1970s, she spent more than two decades in and out of psychiatric hospitals. She first went in after the birth of her first child, and her time in those psychiatric units were dark and lonely.

"I was in psychiatric lockups because I was self-harming all the time and suicide attempts. It was dark. It was very intrusive. It was intimidating - I was scared all the time."

Increasing rates of Māori in mental health services

Figures from the Mental Health and Addiction Service Use Report 2016 show since 2001, the rates of Māori using mental health services has risen by 72 percent - more than double the rate for non-Māori.

Māori are almost four times more likely to be subject to the Mental Health Act than non-Māori, and almost five more times likely to be secluded in an adult inpatient facility. 

Petera Reid is a carver and mental health worker who's also experienced the psychiatric system from the inside. He was diagnosed as schizophrenic and found himself being locked up in seclusion.

"They sent me to Mt Eden Prison - and while I was there they put me in a place called the round room, which is actually right at the bottom of the prison."

Petera Reid.
Petera Reid. Photo credit: The Hui

Petera says he was in a 24-hour surveillance padded room, given a nightie and a quilt and had to sleep on the ground.

"You had a cardboard box in the corner to to do your business in… and a roll of toilet paper."

Petera says this was his experience as a mental health patient.

"I didn't think they'd actually helped a lot. It didn't even help to maintain any sort of wellness for me.

"If anything it just made me get even more psychotic because I would just walk around hitting the walls."

Turning to matauranga Māori

Over the years, Petera would spend more time in psychiatric care.

His lowest point came when he had chased his wife and children away - and was sitting on his porch with a gun.

"For a whole day I had voices telling me to shoot myself."

Tui and Petera have both used matauranga Māori and their connection to the natural world to turn their lives around.

For Petera, his healing started when his cousin introduced him to a tohunga. The tohunga's first instructions to him was to eat one leaf a day off a ginko tree in his front yard.

"You eat one leaf in the evening - this will help to strengthen your hinengaro, your mind."

 At first he was skeptical - but soon committed to the path of becoming tohunga. He now creates art, and also writes down what the voices tell him in his journal. 

Tui Peihopa Taurua.
Tui Peihopa Taurua. Photo credit: The Hui

At one point, Tui Peihopa Taurua says she was on 18 types of medication every day.

"They put me on psychotic medications and antipsychotic medications and on depression medication.

"Every time things went not good for me all they did was just add another pill and that wasn't okay."

Tui started to immerse herself in matauranga Māori using Māori psychiatrist and professor Sir Mason Durie's Te Whare Tapa Wha health model. Te Whare Tapa Whā explores the four dimensions of well being - taha tinana (physical) taha hinengaro (mind) taha wariua (spiritual) and taha whānau (social). 

She says it helped her to gain a greater understanding of her voices.

"I was able to say well, as a Māori, I have a right to hear a voice - then it's okay to hear voices."

Māori psychiatrist Diana Kopua says there needs to be more understanding of how Māori hear voices.

"I do not believe that for example hearing voices is just something that should be seen through the biomedical psychiatric lens.

"Hearing voices might be a spiritual gift or something that was in your family whether you see it as a gift or not that that should be acknowledged."

Diana Kopua.
Diana Kopua. Photo credit: The Hui

Diana works alongside her husband Mark Kopua, who is a tohunga and tā moko artist. Diana says Māori in Gisborne are three times more likely to be placed under compulsory treatment orders.

"Feeling like I had to follow the system of going in after hours and secluding young Māori men broke my heart - it was shocking.

The Tairawhiti based couple created Mahi a Atua, a narrative therapy which uses Māori creation stories to connect people back to their culture and whakapapa. Using matauranga Māori or Māori knowledge is key to their mahi.

"We don't just have that worse statistics in health. But we also have the greatest solutions when you look at our culture," Diana says.

"The problem is in our society all of our institutions are structured around a western way of viewing the world."

Diana and Mark were recently invited to Ihumātao for a wananga of well-being workshop. Even though few people remained on the land, she was taken aback by the whanaungatanga on display.

"When I watch pictures of you guys around the fire having korero and waiata and standing the line I think I couldn't prescribe something better."

Challenging the system

Tui has now returned to her roots in Waitangi, where she lives on a papakainga. She's a kaikaranga at her marae and has used her culture to help learn with her mental illness.

Having turned her life around, Tui is using her experience both inside and outside the system to create meaningful change. And she'll continue to fight for Māori to have their voice heard in mental health services.

The system, she says won't become any better for Māori without challenging it.

"If you're not in this job to challenge the system then you're in the wrong job. That's how I see it."

This story was made possible by the Frozen Funds Charitable Trust, Like Minds, Like Mine and the Mental Health Foundation. For further information, contact the Mental Health Foundation's free Resource and Information Service on (09) 623 4812.

Where to get help

  • Lifeline (open 24/7) - 0800 543 354

  • Depression Helpline (open 24/7) - 0800 111 757

  • Healthline (open 24/7) - 0800 611 116

  • Samaritans (open 24/7) - 0800 726 666

  • Suicide Crisis Helpline (open 24/7) - 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.

  • Youthline (open 24/7) - 0800 376 633. You can also text 234 for free between 8am and midnight, or email talk@youthline.co.nz

  • 0800 WHATSUP children's helpline - phone 0800 9428 787 between 1pm and 10pm on weekdays and from 3pm to 10pm on weekends. Online chat is available from 7pm to 10pm every day at www.whatsup.co.nz.

  • *Kidsline (open 24/7) - 0800 543 754. This service is for children aged 5 to 18. Those who ring between 4pm and 9pm on weekdays will speak to a Kidsline buddy. These are specially trained teenage telephone counsellors.

  • Your local Rural Support Trust - 0800 787 254 (0800 RURAL HELP)

  • Alcohol Drug Helpline (open 24/7) - 0800 787 797. You can also text 8691 for free.

The Hui