Te Whare Tapa Wha

Kirsty Saxon (Multiples Canterbury/Multiples NZ Executive) explores mental health from a Māori perspective.

The topic of mental health is something I am really passionate about, as a mum who suffered from Postnatal Depression (PND) with both my singleton in 2011, and my twinkles in 2013/2014; and also someone who still struggles with depression.  Mothers of multiples are at a higher risk of experiencing PND – approximately 1 in 5 mothers of twins and triplets are diagnosed by their health professional as suffering from (PND). A further 1 in 5 mothers think they may have had PND, but do not receive medical confirmation or treatment. (Dr. Erika Fraser, TAMBA, 2010).  When I was reflecting on these statistics, I decided to explore this topic from a Māori perspective.  This Māori philosophy is based on a holistic health and wellness model called Te Whare Tapa Whā, developed by Dr Mason Durie in 1984.  Mason Durie KNZM is a New Zealand professor of Māori Studies and research academic at Massey University (psychiatry). He is known for his contributions to Māori health.  Durie is currently Emeritus Professor of Māori Research & Development at Massey University.

Te Whare Tapa Whā can be applied to any health issue, whether it involves physical or psychological  well-being (wairua and whānau). Wairua is also linked to connection via mother and child through the whenua (body) and birth (karanga, sacred lifting of tapu and replacing with noa). This is what makes it holistic opposed to westernised version of wellbeing such as the biomedical model.  The biomedical model of health focuses on purely biological factors and excludes psychological, environmental, and social influences. It is considered to be the leading modern way for health care professionals to diagnose and treat a condition in most Western countries.  This might be an interesting lens to look through for PND.

Te Whare Tapa Whā

The model is underpinned by four dimensions representing the basic beliefs of life – te taha hinengaro (psychological health); te taha wairua (spiritual health); te taha tinana (physical health); and te taha whānau (family health). These four dimensions are represented by the four walls of a house. Each wall is necessary to the strength and symmetry of the building.  Connection with the whenua/land and roots forms the foundation.  All of these kaupapa are interrelated, as when one becomes “sick” or “unstable” the others are affected too.  To me, this holistic approach of ensuring all four dimensions are strong in order to create a strong parent and whanau are a valuable tool in our kete when creating happy and healthy families.

Te taha hinengaro (psychological health)

This refers to psychological health, with a focus on emotions. It is understood that the mind and body are inseparable, and that communication through emotions is important and more meaningful than the exchange of words. Taking care of taha hinengaro is important for everyone, regardless of whether or not you’ve experienced mental illness or distress.  When your taha hinengaro is strong, you can better cope with the ups and downs of life. You can express your feelings and reach out for support from friends, whānau and hoamahi/colleagues if you need to.  The kupu in te reo Māori is Whakawhanuangatanga – to build relationships, relate well socially, and communicate.  Some things you can do in this area could be spending quality time and talking with whānau, friends, workmates and neighbours,  connecting with support groups or programmes, volunteering your time, or getting outside for exercise and reflection.  Reinforce that there is strength in asking for help.  With new mums, they may not admit it themselves, but do your best as a family member or friend to assess the situation, is this new mama/whanau coping?  How can her village wrap it’s support so tightly around her she will never be let down?  

Te taha wairua (spiritual health)

This refers to spiritual awareness,  including when considering the spiritual attachment between mother and baby. It is recognised as the essential requirement for health and well-being. It is believed that without spiritual awareness, an individual can be lacking in well-being and therefore more prone to ill health. Wairua explores relationships with the environment, people and heritage. Feeling comfortable in your identity, values and beliefs helps you feel secure in who you are and what you stand for. When you are content with yourself it is easier to cope with challenges, build strong whānau relationships and discover the things that uplift you.  Connect with your special places/tūrangawaewae (place of belonging) or a place that recharges you, Find a spiritual practice you can become completely absorbed in, such as meditation, investigate your heritage/whakapapa, who you are, where you are from and where you stand; skilfully reflecting on the past can enhance our appreciation of the present moment.  But how do parents of multiples find time for self and spiritual care?  Charles Buxton said, “You will never find time for anything. If you want time you must make it.”  Be intentional about your spiritual goals, write them down, find a moment which is yours alone.

Te taha tinana

This refers to physical health and growth and development as it relates to the body. This focuses on physical well-being and bodily care. Tinana suffers when a person is under emotional stress, or is unwell. Pain in different parts of your body is tinana communicating what is going on consciously or unconsciously. Trying to nourish and strengthen your physical wellbeing will help you to cope with the ups and downs of life, this can include nourishing your body with food as medicine and rongoā Māori (natural remedy, traditional treatment, Māori medicine). Feeling physically well helps us to feel mentally well. Having strong taha tinana means we can be there for our whānau and take leadership in helping our loved ones live longer, healthier lives too.  It’s important to acknowledge that sometimes your taha tinana may not be as good as you’d like it to be, and this might be beyond your control. What’s important is that you take care of your taha tinana and do what you can to nurture it, regardless of your current physical abilities. Make a commitment with your whānau to make healthier choices together, get involved in a sports group or club, be aware of what triggers less healthy behaviour – for me this is eating when I’m stressed, get out there and be adventurous – physical activity helps prevent or manage a lot of health conditions.  Exercise, if you love or hate it, you can not deny that it does something awesome for your body and mind. It releases endorphins and makes you feel better. So whatever you love doing, do that. For me, it is dog walking with friends (walk and whinge) and crossfit.  Get what you love in your schedule.  

Te taha whānau

This is the most fundamental unit of Te Ao Māori . Whānau may include up to three or four generations, and its importance will vary from one individual to the next. The beliefs, expectations or opinions of the whānau can have a major impact on the career and personal choices that an individual makes.  They can also be used as a strength, to allow mama to rest or to share their parenting tips. Traditionally this is what the Kuia and Kaumātua roles were within the hapū. Mothers went gathering, fathers went hunting and Nanny and Papa taught and nurtured the mokopuna.  Often hard to translate into today’s society as our whānau structures have changed and adapted to a more western version of family.  Spending time with whānau, doing things for them and getting involved gives you a feeling of purpose, connection and wellbeing. It benefits you and builds the strength of your whole whānau. As a core source of strength, support, security and identity, whānau plays a central role in your wellbeing.  To nurture your family, spend time with your kids, make time for your friends and wider family, get outdoors – go for a walk, have a picnic.    Treasure our extended and elderly whānau … invite them for meals; help with their laundry, cleaning or dishes; or take their kids for a walk while mum has a decent shower. 

The wharenui (meeting house)

This is the symbol used to illustrate these dimensions of well-being. Just as each corner of the house must be strong and balanced to hold its structure, each dimension of well-being must be balanced  for health to exist. Developing self-awareness is key to creating balance and harmony in all aspects of life.  All four walls are needed, and must be in balance, for the house to be strong. So taking care of your physical health is important, but to live your best possible life, you also need to pay attention to your mental health, spirituality and the strength of your whānau.  The good news is there are lots of everyday things you can do to build health in these four areas. You’re probably doing a lot of them already – it’s just a case of recognising their value and making them a priority.


Whenua is the place where you stand. It is your connection to the land – a source of life, nourishment and wellbeing for everyone.  Whenua includes soil, rocks, plants, animals and people – the tangata whenua. We are linked physically and spiritually to the land – it is the earth through which you are connected to your tūpuna/ancestors and all the generations that will come after you.  You can also think about whenua as your place of belonging – that means the spaces where you feel comfortable, safe and able to be yourself. It could be around your friends, at home with whānau, as part of a sports team or even at your place of study or mahi/work.   Everything in the Māori world has a life force, the mauri, and when our natural resources are not looked after, this life force is weakened. This has a direct impact on mental health and wellbeing.  Get your whānau together and explore your local maunga/mountain; challenge yourself to produce less waste. It’s amazing to see how much we use each day that isn’t necessary! There are plenty of tips online for how you can reduce, reuse and recycle; or plant trees or a vegetable garden.


On a personal level, I still struggle through some days, but they are few and far between now.  What helped was purely time … time with my children, time with myself, and just taking one day at a time.    My parenting journey has been one of definitive highs and lows, but through it all I have learned to take each moment, hour, day, as it comes, and know that things will eventually get better;  to enjoy the little things, as one day you will look back and realise these are the big things in life; surround yourself with people who will love, support, listen, laugh and cry with you; and most importantly of all – everything happens for a reason.  It is never apparent at the time, but there are lessons there eventually. When one door closes, another opens.  As a parent of multiples, it is a delicate balance, finding the time to make sure I am nurturing Te Whare Tapa Whā.  But it is something I am becoming more mindful of as the years go by.

“He ōranga ngākau, he pikinga waiora”

 Positive feelings in your heart will enhance your sense of self-worth. 

This whakataukī refers to emotional, spiritual and family waiora dimensions of an individual. Expanding on this, an individual’s waiora is maintained by a balance between all four wellbeing dimensions and this whakataukī draws on being positive.

Kirsty is mum to Ruby (8), Xavier (5) and Lilian (5).  Their whānau have recently moved from 90 Mile Beach in the Far North, to Methven in Canterbury.



Mason Durie, 1984




Stacey Ruru, Maree Roche, Waikaremoana Waitoki; Journal of Indigenous Wellbeing, June 2017 

Special thanks also to Hermione John