Watch: Cultural safety in our mental health system is a collective responsibility

Maria Milmine is a counsellor and part of a small collective of Filipino therapists. She speaks about working in our mental health system.


Decolonising mental health spaces and practice is so important, because whether you are an Asian person, or a Black, Brown, Indigenous person of colour, or whether you’re Pākehā, there is anti-racism work for all of us to do.

Unless that is acknowledged, and unless it is transparent with the people we are privileged to encounter and work with, how can we say that we are providing a responsive service?

Kia ora, kamusta, I’m Maria Milmine.

I am a counsellor and I am passionate about mental health advocacy and facilitating conversations that, especially around mental health, that I feel people in my community are intent on not having. And this is sort of all really born from my lived experience.

My parents, they migrated from the islands known as the Philippines here to Aotearoa in the early 80s.

When my mother became pregnant with me, that wasn’t really part of her plan. And I know this story, and I know this story well, because it was repeated to me throughout my childhood. So that sort of contributed to this idea that I had of myself, that I was the problem.

There was a lot of financial stress in our home. I know that my parents experienced discrimination in the workplace. I know that they experienced homesickness.

Growing up there was a lot of stress and pressure in our home that, I guess myself and my siblings, we got the brunt of that. And we experienced a lot of substance use or alcoholism in our home. There was a lot of violence, and I grew up an angry and sad young person. And I was depressed. I had no words or language.

The idea of talking to someone outside of our family, for some reason that might bring shame both on me, but also on my family and the wider community.

I recall being asked to see the school guidance counsellor. It was an older Pākehā woman, and… I froze, actually. And I think I knew before I even walked in that door that I was not going to say anything. It was not responsive. It was not culturally safe. Even though this counsellor’s intentions were well-meaning, there was no way I was going to be able to sit there and speak freely of my feelings and my needs.

And the big reason for me why it’s important that I might be a counsellor who is Asian, is Filipino, and perhaps has a bit of understanding that there are certain conditions that need to be acknowledged in order for someone to possibly feel safe to talk about the things that are distressing and hard for them.

What I am advocating for in mental health spaces for Asian people is systemic and structural change. The burden cannot continue to be put on individuals or small NGOs and small minority groups who work tirelessly within an oppressive system to exist, to be seen and to be heard.

As Asian communities here in Aotearoa, we have a responsibility as tangata Tiriti, to acknowledge and learn about the history of colonisation, a history of harm.

Many of us benefit from living on stolen land, and the invitation is there for us to support the rights of tangata whenua. And I think in our doing so, we also find liberation for ourselves.

I only have to think about the challenges, the difficulties, the pain, the suffering, the discrimination that my mother experienced, to feel fully convinced that between her life and mine, up until this point, we have we have done more than our fair share of staying small, shrinking back, prioritising the comfort, in particular of white people, but of others over my own.

So I want to hang in here for the long run.

I will be brave and courageous when I have the energy to be, and I glean from the many wisdoms and insights and knowledge from many wonderful Indigenous and Asian people around me who are generous to share their lives with me too. I just hope for more for that.