Karis Knight hopes her research into whakamā – and how Māori understand and experience it as psychological distress – will make a positive difference to Māori mental health.

Loosely translated as shame or embarrassment, whakamā doesn’t have a direct English translation, but is broadly used to describe a negative emotion or loss of mana, which can impact social, spiritual, emotional and physical wellbeing.

Enrolled in a Doctor of Clinical Psychology degree at the University of Auckland, Knight chose to study Māori emotions after working as a counsellor in various mental health settings. “As Māori, we take whakamā for granted, and tāngata whaiora [clients] would often use the word to describe how they felt.”

Knight was recently awarded this year’s Karahipi Tūmuaki President’s Scholarship from the New Zealand Psychological Society for Māori-centred research of value to the Māori community. The grant will assist her doctoral research into whakamā and how it applies to Maori mental health. “It’s the first kaupapa by Māori, with Māori, for Māori in this area,” she says.

“I’m hoping that we can build whakaaro [an understanding] on what it looks like, especially in a mental health context, so clinicians are better able to provide support to our Māori tāngata whaiora in a way that’s going to be meaningful and mana-enhancing.”

Throughout 2019,  Knight plans to talk with Maori mental health practitioners, kuia and kaumātua and Māori who are accessing mental health services. “I want to hear about what they need, also what has helped them. I’d like to include some stories of transformation too, from whakamā to whakamana.”

Knight says Māori concepts of emotions and their presentation is a growing area in kaupapa Māori research, particularly as a way of addressing the effects of intergenerational and historic trauma on mental health.

“When it comes to providing mental health support to Maori, we take for granted that the way we’re engaging is very much through a Western lens. We need a mātauranga Māori [Māori knowledge] lens to meet the needs of Māori and provide support that is mana-enhancing.”

According to Ministry of Health figures, Māori adults (aged 15+) are about 1.5 times as likely as non-Māori adults to report a high or very high probability of having an anxiety or depressive disorder. The difference is greater for males, with Māori males twice as likely as non-Māori males to report a high or very high probability of having an anxiety or depressive disorder.

“Similar disparities can be observed across other indigenous cultures who have experienced colonisation,” says  Knight. “Therefore, it could be argued that high rates of mental health problems amongst Māori are informed by intergenerational trauma linked to colonisation and its ongoing effects.”


Mental Health Awareness Week (MHAW), runs from 8–14 October 2018. This year’s theme is ‘Let nature in, strengthen your wellbeing – Mā te taiao kia whakapakari tōu oranga’.

Where to get help:
If you are worried about your or someone else’s mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call Police immediately on 111.
Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor.
Or if you need to talk to someone else:
Asian Helpline – 0800 862 342
Lifeline – 0800 543 354
Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
Youthline – 0800 376 633 or free text 234
Kidsline – 0800 54 37 54 (for under 18s)
What’s Up – 0800 942 8787 (for 5–18-year-olds 1pm–10pm weekdays and 3pm–10pm weekends)
Depression Helpline – 0800 111 757 or free text 4202
Samaritans – 0800 726 666
OUTLine NZ – 0800 688 5463
Healthline – 0800 611 116

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