Dr Bruce Cohen

…Māori Resistance and the Continuance of Colonial Psychiatry in Aotearoa New Zealand

Before the 1950s, Māori were considered a relatively mentally healthy population. However, current statistics show that they are much more likely to experience a ‘mental illness’ and be admitted to psychiatric hospital compared to settler groups. This article, by Bruce Cohen, argues for an understanding of the mental health system as a site of colonial hegemony in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Cohen demonstrates that the increased urbanization of Māori from the 1960s brought about a political consciousness and visibility which frightened Pākehā society. This, in turn, led to a change in general perceptions of the colonized, from being a passive population to an aggressive one.

Between the 1960s and 1980s, colonial psychiatry began to pathologize a politically conscious Māori population – categorizing Māori protest as constituting the ‘symptoms’ of various forms of ‘mental illness’ (particularly psychotic illness) while ignoring social, economic or cultural issues. This psychiatric process of normalizing colonial rule while pathologizing Indigenous resistance has been found in many other sites of colonial authority. In Aotearoa NZ, the outcomes are extremely high rates of psychiatric diagnosis and incarceration of Māori.

Cohen hopes this piece will lead to further critical debates on race, colonization and western psychiatry’s role in maintaining white privilege in Aotearoa New Zealand. And, that we can re-orient future research towards the psychiatric institution as a site of colonial power and social control. More detailed research is needed to assess, for instance, the informal processes involved in the diagnosing of different groups, the norms and values which frame professional interactions, and the means of justification used to label and incarcerate Māori at higher rates. Without further research that does not interrogate the ‘experts’ with the power to diagnose, treat and incarcerate the colonized, we remain in danger of accepting their world-view uncritically.

You can read the full article here.

Bruce Cohen is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Auckland University. This article was first published in Disability and the Global South, 2014, Vol.1, No. 2, 319-339.

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