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Small-Town Sanity: Creating a Place to Heal in Aotearoa

by Anna Sophia
20 February 2023

I once did not feel a sense of belonging in Aotearoa.

When you belong somewhere, you can plant your feet deep into the whenua (land), growing strong and vibrant and becoming the person you were meant to become.

People like me tend to drift through life like tumbleweed in the desert, scattering our seeds in all directions and hoping like hell the wind blows us somewhere meaningful. I have learned with age that although we can choose to create a different life in a different place, we always take our same restless selves with us.

I wasn’t born in the Rangitikei district. I arrived in this small town without a country bone in my body, right on time for adolescence. Torn away from city life, a childhood of secure friends and routines, I was thrust headlong into an alien environment. The Rangitikei district in Aotearoa is made up of rolling hills and sheep. There are great swathes of land owned by a few elite families. To fit in socially, your family must have lived here for a hundred years or more.

My family was working-class poor. My father was a war-traumatized alcoholic with a gambling addiction who only fit in at the public bar of the local pub. There were no books in our household. The only reading material was a Friday newspaper with a pullout racing-page guide to the best picks for the next horse racing meeting.

My mother worked hard at several low-paid cleaning jobs. In late springtime, she picked asparagus. The women in my whanau (family) are strong and practical. We know how to chop the heads off chickens to feed the children and make pillows out of the feathers because our men are incapable of stepping up to their responsibilities.

I ran wild in this town. I barely went to school as I couldn’t connect with any learning that was offered. I was bored, restless and searching for a meaning to life that wasn’t offered in the classroom of our education system. Life for me was happening elsewhere. The vast landscape provided wide-open spaces to move around in. There were horses to ride bareback, motorbikes and fast cars to drive recklessly. There were long summers swimming in rivers. There were plenty of boys and alcohol. I knew everything and nothing at all. It was enough for a while. Eventually, rural black-and-white thinking tainted my kaleidoscopic vision, so I left the year I turned sixteen and swore to never come back. I moved to a nearby city to work for a year and saved enough money for a one-way plane ticket to London.

I embraced life on the edges of other places and spaces, occasionally tipping into an abyss. I lived my life out of a backpack, carrying all my possessions on my back. Along the way, I picked up manual work in bars, cafes, picking fruit and often worked up to three jobs at the same time, working all day and most of the night so I could save enough money to buy a bus or plane ticket to another place. I was always searching for another adventure.

Places to go were chosen randomly. I lived and worked in a small community in the Negev desert, in Israel, and fell in love with a Jewish soldier. In the vast empty spaces of the desert, I thought of Jesus wandering around for forty days and nights, and for a time this life was enough for me. Once I had saved enough money for a plane ticket out of there, I repacked my backpack and moved.

Heady summers were spent walking the steaming, rumbling pavements of my enduring love, New York City. This is the city of reinvention and creative inspiration.

I flew so high over the earth.

My son was born into Thatcher-driven London when I was twenty-one years old. Single and without an income, a home or family support, I squatted in an abandoned council flat in Brixton during the 1985 riots and despite my lack of UK citizenship was able to sign on for single-parent welfare payments. My baby and I picnicked next to Karl Marx’s grave at Highgate Cemetery and plotted revolutions.

Creative with my meager financial resources, I was an outsider living a life of self-reinvention. I knew what I didn’t want in my life more than what I did want. I didn’t want to be married, to have a husband, to work in a meaningless job for little reward. I didn’t want to mould myself into a caricature definition of what women were meant to be like at that time in history.

During the mid- to late-1980s, the New Zealand government decided to pay university fees for single parents on welfare. No one in my extended whanau had ever set foot inside a university. The initiative was enough of a drawcard for me to return to Aotearoa from London with my baby perched on top of my backpack. Living on the poverty line as a single parent was limiting. I wanted better for my son’s education, and this seemed like a path forward.

I moved to Palmerston North, and within days of my return, I nervously enrolled to study part-time for a social science degree at Massey University. I needed something new and solid to work toward. I loved being a mother to my son, but my lifelong search for meaning was driving me toward something more. My first year of studies was intimidating. I had failed high school and had no idea how to write an essay. I thought that only intelligent people went to university, and I had never seen myself as being smart enough to be able to do something like this.

I soon learned that it was mainly privileged white middle-class people who went to university, and many of them did not want to be there at all. They didn’t know what else to do with their lives. Though I struggled with essay writing and exams, I was equipped with a wide-ranging grassroots experience of the world. This enabled me to grasp the theoretical knowledge I was taught and apply it to life. Initially, I didn’t have a fixed plan of what I wanted my major to be. I usually chose to study papers that looked interesting and that I would enjoy learning about.

I gravitated toward health and healing systems from various cultures around the world, indigenous lifeworlds closer to home. I soon discovered a passion for social anthropology which ended up being my social science major.

It was through studying social anthropology and health papers that I first heard about Te Whare Tapa Wha. This concept was first discussed in the university, in the early 1980s by Sir Mason Durie. He was known in Aotearoa for his understanding of Māori health.

Durie identified that hauora (well-being) comes from the balance of four dimensions, represented as taha (sides) of a whare (house).

1) Te Taha Tinana (physical well-being) focuses on the physical body—its growth, its ability to move and how it’s cared for and nourished.

2) Te Taha Hinengaro (mental and emotional well-being) explores coherent thinking—the ability to acknowledge and express one’s thoughts and feelings and respond well to others.

3) Te Taha Whanau (family and social well-being) looks at family relationships, social friendships, community and interpersonal relationships. It examines one’s feeling of belonging and whether they have social support for themself and the ability to care for and nurture others.

4) Te Taha Wairua (spiritual well-being) is about values and beliefs that determine how one lives—their search for purpose in life, personal identity and self-awareness. This may be linked to a belief in a higher form of existence.

For Māori, relationships with their ancestors are an example of the deep connections they maintain with their spirituality.

A solid connection with the whenua helps us form a strong foundation for our connection to ourselves and our communities.

This connection to the land is the source of life, nourishment and well-being for everyone. The whenua is the place where we stand; it’s a place of belonging where we feel safe and free to be ourselves.

When all four dimensions are in balance, we thrive. When there is an imbalance, our well-being is impacted.

I decided to explore Te Whare Tapa Wha by assessing my taha. I systematically began to address the imbalances across the four dimensions of my well-being.

    Te Taha Tinana (physical well-being).

I quit smoking cigarettes and marijuana and drinking alcohol. Giving up alcohol and marijuana was relatively easy because my life was full as a single parent, and I had so much academic learning to process that I didn’t have time or energy to socialise with my friends to imbibe these substances. Education had become my preferred drug, and knowledge gave me bigger highs than other substances.

Giving up cigarettes was a torturous process that went on for over a year. I could manage a few smoke-free weeks before succumbing to my addiction again. Nicotine is a chameleon. It is a drug that is your best friend. You smoke it alongside of every emotion you feel. You smoke because you are filled with joy, and you smoke because you are sad. It is your best and constant companion.

One morning after waking up, I looked at the packet of cigarettes beside my bed and questioned why I allowed a cardboard box and its contents to control my life for so long.

It’s been thrity-two years since that morning, and although I have never smoked again, I still dream I am a smoker, and I am always tempted to start up again.

I needed to replace my vices with wholesome habits. For the first time in my life, I began exercising. Not fanatically, but I became more aware of my body and its need for movement.

I became more conscious of the foods I ate. This sounds virtuous. But as I approach the end of my sixth decade of life, I still struggle to make healthy food choices on most days.

My relationship with both myself and others became more enjoyable and less demanding. I was happy to spend time alone and with my son. I enjoyed peace and solitude more than socialising with groups of people.

After I graduated from university, I was still unclear what I wanted to do with my life. My son was still young and had just started school, and a social science degree, though interesting, isn’t a qualification that translates easily into paid employment.

I decided I needed a trade, a practical skill to earn a living. In keeping with Te Taha Tinana, I trained in therapeutic massage and shiatsu.

I set up a home-based therapeutic-massage business serving women only. I didn’t feel safe with unknown men coming into my home and removing most of their clothes to be massaged.

      Te Taha Hinengaro (mental and emotional well-being).

Over several years, as more women I massaged talked to me about their lives and disclosed personal issues, I realised I wanted to learn more about actively listening to others in a way that was helpful to them.

Through my honesty about my own life experiences, my extensive travelling around the earth as well as between different social groups, I have developed an openness that has enabled me to form connections with many different people who feel safe to confide in me.

Initially, I completed a two-year, part-time Basic Counselling Skills course at a local Polytechnic to help me to understand and give appropriate responses to the often-traumatic stories shared by my clients.

After completing this course, I completed further part-time training for two years at the Polytechnic to become a professional counsellor, graduating with a diploma in counselling. I also trained in Interactive Drawing Therapy, a form of psychotherapy encouraging people to use words and images to explore their issues to access deeper parts of themselves.

At various stages of this process, I sought therapy for myself to gain self-knowledge and heal from my past traumas.

I realised how my father’s alcoholism and poor mental health had impacted me growing up. He really did not parent my brother and I. I believe a parent’s job is to provide a safe and nurturing environment for their children to thrive. I didn’t see my father much as a child, as he was away from home either working or drinking alcohol. During the brief glimpses I saw of him, he was drunk and talking loud nonsense or so severely hung over he could not speak at all. He laid on a couch in a darkened room even on a sun-filled, blue-sky day without any interest in his children’s lives or in the life-force itself. Even my son, his only grandchild, failed to spark him back to life.

While I was at university, he killed himself. The aftermath of losing someone you know by suicide is fraught with questions and flashbacks and self-blame of what you could have done differently to change the outcome. This is a different grief to a death caused by an accident where there are often others or clear circumstances to attribute blame to, or death by cancer in which there is a slow, painful process of many losses before the ending of a life.

When someone close to you kills themself, you can never return to the person you were before their death. The grief process around my father was further complicated because we were not close.

Staring at suicide face to face strips away any false veneers about how life is and simplifies it. You have a choice to live fully or to die. If you choose life, then you need to grab hold of it, keep moving forward and piece yourself back together one fragile piece at a time.

      Te Taha Whanau (family and social well-being).

I spent most of my late 20s and into my early 30s digging deep to find meaning and purpose in the aftermath of my father’s suicide. After a long period of introspection and also the hecticness of the day-to-day single parenting of my son, it was eventually time to reconnect with the world again.

It was time to bring all my skills as a thinker, a social anthropologist, a feminist social activist, a healer, an administrator and a creative person to the table. I wanted to contribute to my wider communities in a healthy way.

I built myself a path from the margins where I resided toward mainstream society. Although I lacked a clear plan, I knew I had the capacity to bring about social change in a meaningful way.

My son was my constant inspiration and source of joy. I loved being his mother, and, while we were financially poor, while he was growing up I was able to give him my full attention and creative energy to inspire him to become whatever he wanted to be in his life.

When he was five years old, he said he wanted to be a magician, so I encouraged him to seek out mentors to follow his childhood passion. As the years progressed, he added more skills like juggling and comedy to his repertoire and began performing shows. By the time he left school, he was a full-time performer in the Manawatu. Now based in Australia, he is one of the country’s top performers. He travels extensively around the world with his unique circus-stunt comedy show.

      Te Taha Wairua (spiritual well-being).

My spiritual well-being comes from hiking. In Aotearoa, we are blessed with beautiful walking tracks, and it is easy to find a path to walk alone. When I walk, I merge with this mysterious force. All superficial thoughts and concerns dissipate. I blend in with the trees, the birds and the river.  I am renewed, and my energy is refreshed.

      Back to the beginning because life moves in circles, not straight lines.

I live in the Manawatu district of Aotearoa. Palmerston North, or Papaioea, is a small, socially inclusive city

The Rangitikei district where this story started is about thirty-five minutes’ drive from my house. It’s not a great distance geographically, but it is socially, and since I am more city girl than country girl, I had avoided visiting there until 2000.

After twenty years away, I returned to the Rangitikei to work as a professional counsellor and community leader. I had a mixture of letters of the alphabet after my name, but the responsibility that came with those letters sat uneasily on my shoulders. I still lacked confidence as an educated person and in my abilities as a healer. I felt like an imposter. Fortunately, I had just enough youthful energy left to believe I could change the world, or at least a small part of it, which was enough to get started.

I created a community centre that provides free counselling for everyone who lives within the geographical region. As it is a isolated region, many people either don’t have transport, money for petrol or can’t afford the time off work to be able to travel to the cities for support.

In my first decade of running the centre, if I hadn’t been driven by idealism and ‘payback penance’ for my wild adolescence, I would have walked away because it was really hard work. I was creating something new, and I had very little financial or practical support. Funding to keep the centre going was initially almost impossible to obtain.

Mental health in the early 2000s wasn’t dominating news headlines as it is now. There was silence and a sense of shame around admitting to mentally struggling with personal issues. The mainstream system only existed for people who were very unwell, so there was no funding for people who were still able to function in their lives but desperately needed the help good counselling can provide.

Every year I wrote funding applications to various government departments and philanthropists; such was my determination for the counselling services to be no cost. Funding or no funding, there was no shortage of clients at the centre. Somehow, making careful use of our meagre human and financial resources, our doors remained open. I often felt like a busker with my hat out, singing the same old song. Until eventually my song was heard, and money and recognition for our work came trickling in.

For a long time, I worked alone. I would encourage interns who were completing their training to do placements at the centre, and as our income slowly increased via recognition from government departments and various philanthropists, I was able to employ them. The Rangitikei district is one of the poorer areas in Aotearoa. The annual household income is below the national average at $53,000 per annum compared to our national average income of $117,000 per annum.

There’s a deep underlying sadness and an invasive darkness that meanders down the Rangitikei River and floods the lush landscape in this food-bowl region. I know the region intimately, from its darkest underbelly to its wealthy landowners and all the layers in between. Rangitikei district is a microcosm of New Zealand society. Our clients—young, old, couples, families—bring a multitude of life experiences to talk about.

At a societal level, there is poverty, family violence, sexual abuse, depression, suicide, drug and alcohol abuse and third-generation unemployment.

At an individual level, sometimes life just grinds to a halt. Everything once cherished seems inane. There is grief, loss, existential angst and life transition crises. For many people, no light can be seen.

For a long time after my return, I saw my adolescent ghost everywhere. Walking the streets, hiding in corners or reflected in my clients’ eyes. A skinny, sharp-mouthed teenager wafting with sarcasm, she slunk in the background, pervading my day-to-day perception. She reminded me what it’s like to feel trapped with no obvious route to freedom. I got to know her well. I appreciated her gut-level instincts, her sass and energy. I liked and respected her wisdom. She was a person I had lost sight of on my journey to adulthood.

The Counselling Centre stands as a solid proverbial fence at the top of a cliff. We see people before they tip over the edge and before the rescue becomes too difficult or impossible. Over the twenty-two years I have worked at the Centre, we have helped 5,000 people from a population pool of 16,000.

Our whare (house) is on a side street littered with abandoned buildings. The building is long and narrow, and I painted it a shade of green to match spring growth. The windows and door are sky blue. The people who enter the building want to transform their lives. They want a reason to get up in the morning and a future to look forward to.

Our whare is stylishly welcoming and warm. Walls are draped with art by a local Maori artist who created a series of prints based on a holistic healing approach to health. Clients can help themselves to good coffee, biscuits and chocolate.

Every word spoken within the walls is confidential. Everyone who works at the Centre is a member of the professional New Zealand Association of Counsellors and abides by its code of ethics. Aside from myself, there are three more counsellors who work alongside me, and we currently have the capacity to see up to forty people each week between us. When I started, we only had the resources to see a total of five people.

We try to see people as quickly as we can. Often it can be the same day that they request to see a counsellor. Usually, the wait is not much more than a week. According to the final evaluations that a client completes when they no longer want to attend counselling, over 90% of the people who use our services achieve a positive outcome. This means that they received the help they wanted from counselling, and the issues they presented with at the beginning have been resolved.

‘The counsellor helped me more than any “child specialist” agency I have been referred to in the past. She gave me the tools to get through what I felt was an impossible time.’ ~ A client.

We also take a quick evaluation after every session, so people can let us know how the session worked for them. This is imperative to make sure the client has the right counsellor, and they are feeling understood.

With a nudge from their doctors, more men have started seeking our services. Farming men in Aotearoa tend to be the silent and stoic types who do not easily share their deeper thoughts and feelings with others. Now, gumboots line up outside our entrance.

The Counselling Centre is an outlier. Off the radar, independent, and for most of its life ignored by the Ministry of Health and other governmental bureaucracies, we have quietly developed a practical model of care for people with mild to moderate mental health concerns that works. Following Te Whare Tapa Wha, we are interested in all four dimensions a person’s taha.

In Aotearoa, counselling still sits on the margins of mental health care. The mainstream mental health system has its roots within a more clinically based medical model and has been more pharmaceutically driven.

The history of counselling in Aotearoa has its roots in a few different locations. Within the education system, school guidance counsellors began to do more well-being counselling. In the 1970s, marriage guidance counselling started to help people stay married, and various church-based groups have offered a caring kind of counselling service. None of these strands have been specifically related to health.

There is a lot of work being done at the moment within the New Zealand Association of Counsellors, the professional counselling body, to have counselling recognised within the mainstream mental health system, but change takes time, and we are not there yet.

Across most of the country, it’s difficult to access affordable or no-cost counselling. Seeking private therapy requires anything from NZ$100.00 per hour. This is beyond the reach of most of our clients at the Centre who are already struggling financially.

Funding to maintain the Centre has gradually improved as there has been increased recognition of the benefits of counselling to individuals and families and the flow-on effect this has on maintaining healthier communities.

While conversations about mental health roll more easily now than they have in the past, many of these conversations still point toward the failure of the mainstream pharmaceutical-dominated community mental health system model which dominates Aotearoa. There are too many waiting lists, and too many people are ‘not unwell enough’ to have access to help under this system. Other options are not easily accessible or do not exist at all.

Every day at the Centre, we hear devastating stories of loss, grief, sadness, despair, betrayal, family and relationship problems, abuse, trauma, loss of hope and uncertainty about life direction. Often, these stories are buried beneath a catch-all ‘depression’ label.

Most people who have been labelled as ‘depressed’ by their doctors are prescribed medication. In some instances, pharmaceutical intervention can help. However, it will not lead the person toward a deeper understanding of themselves and their well-being. If someone is prescribed medication for depression, it is best to be used alongside therapeutic interventions like counselling to gain deeper insights into the depression’s origins and processes.

‘Depression’ can be a lifelong and serious diagnosis. However, it fails to recognise normal feelings like sadness, grief or rage.

We live in a society that does not easily tolerate sadness. Sadness gets squashed down so that feelings become ‘depressed’. Once these feelings are identified and ‘expressed’ during counselling, ‘depression’ can disintegrate, and the real stories can be told.

Often, rage and anger are also squashed down by ‘depression’. At a societal level, there is a lot to rage about. Rage over the lack of affordable housing. Rage over poverty. Rage over working too many jobs for so little compensation. Labelling this rage as ‘depression’ overlooks these issues.

Counselling may not change issues at the structural level. However, it can cast light on them, ensuring that individuals can clearly see what is going on and that they don’t need to carry it within their bodies and suffer in silence.

Despite being a no-cost and easily accessible service, most people see us for only six sessions or fewer. They are more than welcome to keep coming to see us, but after fifteen years, our statistics show that people for the most part do not want or require long-term counselling.

When people are lost in the darkness, we help them see that black is not a vortex to be sucked into. Black is an accumulation of colours from a colour-fueled life. By learning to speak the language of their own colours, they can piece together their life story and move forward into a healthier future.

It’s tough work. It’s satisfying work. Knowing that you are guiding someone to make fundamental changes to their outlook on life is uplifting.

Listening to the stories of how violent humans can be to one another and themselves can be soul-destroying.

You need to have good, solid personal boundaries to survive this kind of work long-term. You need to know who you are and what your own life stories mean and be continually open to change. You are not useful to your clients if you are spilling out your life uncontained.

My energy is restored by the maunga (mountains) that dominate the central North Island landscape. On my drive to work, I can see Mount Ruapehu and Mount Taranaki.

On the way home, I let the client stories flow down the Rangitikei River to the sea. I focus my energy on the changing light over the Tararua and Ruahine Ranges and make plans for my next hike across them.

Imagine if there were community-based counselling centres like the Centre available in every neighbourhood, town or city. Imagine if there were drop-in centres where people could access counselling at no cost when they need it, thus ensuring small mental-health concerns do not grow into big mental-health problems that overwhelm a system no one has any idea how to fix.


I came back to Aotearoa.

To build a community resource.

To provide a space for people to tell their stories.


I came back.

To befriend the ghosts of my past and get to know them better.

To create a sense of belonging.

About the Author

Anna Sophia

Anna Sophia is an intermittent writer and a counsellor and has been the manager of a nonprofit community counselling service based in the Rangitikei region of Aotearoa, New Zealand for 23 years. She lives in Papaioea in a tiny cottage where she has raised two sons with a 21-year age gap between them. After a […]