Māori health has to focus on whānau: Sir Mason Durie

By Jessica Tyson

Sir Mason Durie says to address health concerns for Māori, efforts must focus more on whānau than the need for more doctors and nurses.

Durie is one of New Zealand’s top psychiatrists and has spent decades working in the health sector. He recently chaired a steering group that appointed the board responsible for the new Māori Health Authority.

“The thing that we’ve come to is to realise that the centre for Māori health has got to be with whānau … We are certainly looking at the need for more doctors and more nurses but all of our efforts in the end have to focus on our whānau.”

He says the first step focusing on whānau came with the creation of Whānau Ora. 

“[Whānau Ora] really wasn’t about health or education, it was about all of those things coming together and it’s the coming together of those sectors, which are separate from each other," he says.

"If you fix the housing up, you make a contribution to income, you are making a contribution to health. It’s really looking at all of those things being able to come together.”

Focusing on 'the wider wairua'

In 1965 Durie wanted to study psychiatry but could only do so overseas. So he and his wife travelled to Montreal in Canada where he realised the conventional approach to improving health didn’t suit Māori.

“What I learned over in Canada was really helpful but applying it in the context in Māori patients required a different approach.”

One of the problems he noticed was the idea that the mind and body were separate, which he says was “nonsense”.

“You can’t separate the mind from the body but that’s sort of how it was. We only looked at the mind and were not concerned about the body or about the wider wairua that people might have. So that really led me to think about other options and other ways of helping people," he says.

“The focus should not be on the diagnosis. More importantly, it should be on the whole person.”

Service to Māori health

Durie, of Rangitāne, Ngāti Kauwhata, Ngāti Raukawa, became the pride of his people when he was knighted in 2009 for services to Māori health and public service.

He followed in the footsteps of his younger brother, Sir Edward Durie, a lawyer and judge.

Durie says he had mixed feelings about becoming a knight.

“Early in my life I had been at Te Aute College and we had people like Sir Maui Pōmare, Sir Apirana Ngata, Sir Peter Buck. They were the names that we heard over and over again," he says.

“They were true heroes of their day. They really founded this platform that we operate today so when I heard about this, on one hand I felt quite honoured and humbled but, on the other, I felt uneasy about it.”

At 84, Durie continues to advocate for Māori health but says becoming a knight hasn’t changed his role.

“What I’m doing now, I’ve always been doing. The good news is that it didn’t have a major effect on where I was going and what I was doing. I just kept on doing what I had always done. Having a knighthood is an honour but it really hasn’t altered my life.”

Durie appeared on Te Ngākau Tapatahi, a show profiling Māori dames and knights. The new "series from the Māori Television newsroom is running this week on Māori Television at 12pm. Find the first five episodes on Māori+ now and the full series from Sunday, January 23.