Old Black Cloud reviewed in Sunday Star-Times


Sapeer Mayron reviews Old Black Cloud: A cultural history of mental depression in Aotearoa New Zealand by Jacqueline Leckie for the Sunday Star-Times

‘It took more than a year, two attempts at counselling, half a dozen different friends and 30 minutes with my doctor to understand I was more than sad. Sure, people told me I had fair reasons to be blue, but it appeared what I had was more than sadness: it was depression. It was like realising that the sprain is in fact a break. I agreed to treatment and thankfully am coming right.

The Mental Health Foundation says 47% of New Zealanders will experience mental distress or illness in their lifetime, so it’s almost funny I was surprised to be diagnosed.

After reading Associate Professor Jacqueline Leckie’s cultural history of depression in Aotearoa, Old Black Cloud, I see my denial sits within a long social legacy of downplaying, ignoring and mustering through depression, to no-one’s benefit.

Ōtepoti-based Leckie is an anthropologist, and has dedicated much of her career to filling in the gaps left behind by earlier researchers.

She’s published books on the treatment of Kiwi Indians in Aotearoa, on the asylums of Fiji and now she’s published the first ever deep look at depression in Aotearoa’s history. In the few short weeks it has been out, Leckie has heard she’s written a story that needed to be told.

Internationally, books about depression are common. The Empire of Depression, A New History by researcher Jonathan Sadowsky was a well read tome canvassing the global history of depression, but skipped over New Zealand, like many other international big reads.

“Our part of the world is really neglected,” Leckie says. “That’s not too surprising, I guess, but I feel as a local person that it's really important to rectify that.”

She’s also tried to move away from a mere recap of the way mentally unwell people were institutionalised and imprisoned in asylums, subjected to lobotomies or repeated bouts of electroconvulsive therapies or high doses of numbing medications.

Those stories can live on the extreme ends of the mental health spectrum. What most of us will experience, either in ourselves or with our loved ones is far more mundane, Leckie says.

“I wanted to look at something that is very much part of many, many families’ lives.

“And the more you start talking to people, you just get story after story after story.”

Leckie too has her own story with depression, which she details in the book. She says while she didn’t initially set out to write about herself in Old Black Cloud, it soon became clear her experiences were relevant.

As an anthropologist, she believes in declaring her “positionality” – telling readers where she is coming from when she writes. But having decided to share, Leckie was quickly flooded with doubt about her choice.

Will people judge me? Will I reveal too much about myself, my family, my work experiences? I faced the same questions writing the first few lines of this article, and ultimately decided to go with Leckie on this one.

“Most of my close friends would know,” she says. “Although I've been surprised that some people have said, ‘oh, I never realised that you suffered from depression’. It’s like, really?”

Leckie suspects the “Facebook Syndrome” might be to blame for why parts of her social circle were caught off guard.

“I had a relatively successful career, I was head of the university department. I published a lot, I travelled a lot, I had a stable relationship, a child… People see pictures of you out there in the sunshine going for a walk and they think, ‘oh, yeah, Jacqui is coping. Jacqui is fine’.

“But there's a lot that's hidden.” From her first diagnosis in 1990 to as recently as 2016 when she lost her academic job during redundancies at Otago University, Leckie’s life and career have been punctuated with periods of depression.

Now having studied generations of experiences with, and definitions of depression, Leckie wants readers to know: it’s not that there is a sudden influx of depression in the 21st century, brought on by pharmaceutical companies pushing antidepressants (as Gary Greenberg wrote in his 2010 book,

Manufacturing Depression: The Secret History of a Modern Disease). Our ancestors have always struggled with, or through, this experience.

“I would suggest that many people in the past, as today, did not cope with life’s upheavals, often with disastrous consequences,” she writes.

Leckie read through reams of coroners’ reports following inquiries into suspicious deaths, or deaths suspected to be suicides – she couldn’t legally publish them.

Those pages suggested a long history of people “soldiering through”, their silent cries for help missed or not taken seriously by those around them.

“They're not OK,” Leckie says. “You can sort of read that between the lines, but they often just kept it within themselves.”

Soldiering through or “she’ll be right”-ing our way through unhappiness is a common Kiwi experience. And although more people are willing to talk about mental illness or unwellness, and might even share their own experiences, Leckie’s own doubts about revealing her depression in her book speaks volumes.

In its 2022 publication on mental health statistics in Aotearoa, the Mental Health Foundation reported one in five people experiencing mental distress said they were scared to, or avoided telling people how they were feeling for fear of discrimination.

Those fears were not unwarranted: a fifth of respondents said they had experienced discrimination because of their experiences with mental ill-health – 50% of them at work, and 33% from their family and friends.

Historically, women in particular faced the brunt of such stigma.

In patient records going back to the mid1900s, Leckie found repeated references to women being “self-centred” or “self-absorbed” while depressed, a description rarely, if ever, handed to men.

And until the 21st century, thanks to the concerted efforts of non-Pākehā mental health practitioners, non-Pākehā patients weren’t likely to get taken seriously.

In early colonised Aotearoa, stereotypes about Māori, Pasifika, Chinese and Indian people in New Zealand were written and talked about as if they couldn’t get depression.

In the 19th century, depression was even considered a “white man’s burden,” Leckie writes: “an outcome of civilisation that Indigenous people did not face.”

Leckie found numerous descriptions of non-Pākehā patients being written about with derision, and with very little detail compared to their Pākehā peers.

Their low mood was put down to their culture with essentialist and incorrect assumptions, Leckie says, or in some cases even called an act.

When Māori clinicians and psychologists began writing – and being published – on the topic, New Zealand started slowly treating Māori and other ethnic minorities better.

Leckie said Sir Mason Durie, who created the Te Whare Tapa Whā model, was among those who was instrumental in improving mental healthcare for Māori and others.

“Questions remain about whether we are a nation that values and embraces mental wellbeing for all of the diverse minds, bodies and cultures that live in our challenging physical, social, economic and political environments,” Leckie concludes.

“If we are, then we can move from being the land of the old black cloud to an Aotearoa with brighter and more colourful clouds.”’