10 Questions with Jacqueline Leckie, author of Old Black Cloud


Q1: The first-ever social history of mental depression in New Zealand . . . what drew you to this topic?

It comes from my long-term research, teaching and writing in social history and anthropology. I had undertaken research on the history of mental health in Fiji and the Pacific Islands and while I was aware of historical research on mental health in Aotearoa, I felt that this focused on institutions and people who were certified as insane. I was keen to explore the more nebulous condition of depression that so often didn’t lead to hospitalisation. I also wanted to address different ethnicities. My other motivation was that global histories of depression do not speak to the South Pacific.

Q2: You are very candid in your introduction about your own experiences of depression. It is generous of you to be so open. Did you have to think long and hard about this approach?

Yes I did! But I felt that at my age and stage of my career, it was time to be reflective about my lived experiences of depression. Although this is now well established in mental health non-fiction, I was still wary about ‘coming out’! I hope that my honesty will encourage more people to be open about their own experiences, even if they present themselves as having rich lives. I was also propelled by my own fairly recent experiences of forced redundancy in academia and I did not want to hide the impact that this can have on mental health. I hope that by sharing we can be more compassionate.

Q3: You capture very well that liminal space between what can be diagnosed by a clinician as depression and the sadnesses that come with just being human. That old word ‘melancholia’, which used to be used for depression, captures that well, doesn’t it?

I think melancholia does capture this. We can be sad or depressed about our personal life, as well as the political context, injustice, illness, poverty, and many other heartaches that life throws to us. At what point do our responses become diagnosed as depression? Well, often they are not, and we just ‘soldier on’, which can make not just our lives but also that of those who live or work with us also miserable. But diagnosis does not necessarily mean a cure — indeed, the treatments may compound the problem. So many of us do live within the liminal space of getting on with life and medical encounters. Ideally we can share this fractious human condition — but not always.

Q4: You also make it clear that there were unique triggers for depression here in Aotearoa when it was a new, raw and at times inhospitable colony. You call it ‘the lonely land’. And it has continued to be lonely for waves of migrants. Before you began your research, had you thought of New Zealand in that way?

One of the first poems I can recall writing was about a young teenager living on a high country sheep station and sitting on a farm gate feeling so alone — despite the great beauty of the environment. Later as I researched and spoke to immigrants (and especially women), the themes of loneliness struck me. Being so far away from familiar places, family and culture — the food, the people the colour, the daily habits. The lonely land is not just physical (with our brooding hills, dense bush and windswept beaches), it’s also very much social and cultural.

Q5: You use patient records from the various asylums that existed from Victorian times and which treated the most extreme cases. How did it feel to be handling those?

I am a trained academic historian who has had access to some very sensitive records relating to people from different cultures over the years. I had to be sensitive to the individuals and their whānau (if known) but I also strongly advocate that such stories are not hidden. One of the weird and delightful aspects of archival research — even with distressing topics — is that you can get very attached to the subjects. It’s sometimes hard to let go!

Q6: The stories are often so heartbreaking aren’t they?

They are sad and disturbing and that’s when I think historical researchers have to come up and immerse themselves in the present and be with living people. I have probably shed more tears when doing interviews and oral histories than reading archives. I also have tried to show how compassion can run through the despair — which is why I found stories like those of Waata Kūkūtai, Richard Henry and Meg Campbell so compelling.

Q7: You have a great deal of information on the various quack cures and over-the-counter medications that were available. How dangerous were they do you think?

Possibly most dangerous to the pocket — as some over-the-counter medications can still be. In the past some of these medications were addictive and toxic, with unforeseen consequences. This is an on-going issue with medicating depression. Some of the ‘quacks’ did provide a sympathetic ear — a form of talking therapy. Not dangerous unless the listener makes ridiculous suggestions or advises against medical treatment when it is needed.

Q8: Does this current environment, in which we are so much open about talking about depression, give you cause for optimism or do you feel that there are some dangers in that?

I don’t know if we are really that open about talking about depression — especially within different cultures and ethnicities, or even within close whānau. I still see lots of squirming when the word depression is raised. It has been challenging, for instance, to admit what my book was about. There is definitely still a taboo about the subject. I found that many people were OK with me writing about ‘madness’ but not the more murky subject of depression, which many actually do recognise but still don’t want to discuss. I would like to be optimistic but as a realist I think that as a society we need much more than talking about depression. Mental health, like all health issues, costs money, and needs fantastic personnel who should not be expected to have excessive workloads — or be volunteers. These have been on-going issues and they will intensify within the current political climate of cutting benefits and publicsector spending.

Q9: But things are so much better than in Victorian times, right?

Well, as a woman I do now get to vote and I have been able to earn a living! My ‘lifestyle’ probably would have been much tougher, and with fewer options, in Victorian times. And there are now legal rights that sick people did not have in the past. But it is very tricky to answer your question because how do we compare across cultures and over time within Aotearoa? Māori recognised profound sadness, maybe like melancholia, but the economic and political environment was radically disrupted after colonisation. So are things better for Māori? Although there may be more options now to deal with mental health, there has not been a decline in depression and related mental stress within all cultures. So we need to look hard at these trends, despite advances in health care and despite the supposed ‘freedom’ we can exercise.

Q10: What do you hope readers will take away from reading this book?

We have a long history of depression in Aotearoa within many cultures. Contrary to global awareness of an an epidemic of depression, I have aimed to locate this within Aotearoa’s past. I want to show how depression is well embedded in our local histories — it is not at all new. I also hope to raise awareness of the denial of depression that has had sad consequences for so many. There is a Kiwi inflection behind this denial that the book explores. Readers will also learn about how people have lived with depression — this is not to imply that we should just tough it out and deny the pain, but I would like to provoke readers to consider ways of relieving that suffering. Some treatments have been cruel and used in an abusive manner. And it is not just enough to write out a prescription and put all the answers down to biochemistry. Especially I see my book as shedding further light, in many different ways, on a still largely unspoken topic and the stigma that goes with revealing that you are depressed and not coping, despite outward appearances.