Jul 18, 2019
MIA’s Ayurdhi Dhar interviews Diana Kopua about the Mahi a Atua approach, the global mental health movement, and the importance of language and narratives in how we understand our world and ease our suffering.
Diana Kopua’s life resembles the stories she uses in her work. From a psychiatric community nurse to the head of the department of psychiatry for Hauora Tairawhiti in Gisborne, New Zealand, her 13-year long, arduous journey is both deeply personal and profoundly political. Kopua says she did this to “become a wedge that kept the door open to allow for indigenous leaders” in her world to change the system. One may call her a storyteller, but a story-gatherer might be more appropriate.
As a psychiatrist, Kopua deals in human distress but her interest does not lie in neat psychiatric classifications; instead, she focuses on understanding suffering through Maori creation stories, Purakau. She has developed Mahi a Atua, “an engagement, an assessment, and an intervention” to address the mental distress and suffering among the Maori of New Zealand. Mahi a Atua is not just a set of techniques or a culturally sensitive new therapy, but a drastically different way of conceptualizing the lived experience of the Maori.
Recently, along with art and culture expert Mark Kopua and critical psychiatrist Pat Bracken, she published a paper on this approach in Transcultural Psychiatry. Their work can be seen as an alternative to Western pharmaco-therapeutic interventions currently being promoted throughout the global South via the global mental health movement.
Researchers have critiqued the exporting of Western psychiatric practices, often citing the famous WHO study that reported better outcomes for people diagnosed with mental disorders in the developing world. As the only Ngati Porou (a Maori nation) psychiatrist in the world, working with a population known for poor mental health outcomes, Kopua’s work offers insight into what can be learned from local, Indigenous, and traditional healing methods.
There are many now calling for a “paradigm shift” in Western psychiatry, and in our interview, we covered topics ranging from the specifics of the Mahi a Atua approach, the global mental health movement, and the importance of language and narratives in how we understand our world and ease our suffering.
© Mad in America 2019