Looking to the past for answers: Mental Health and Migration

Each year New Zealand and Australia take in tens of thousands of new migrants, many of whom suffer mental health problems as the result of the stress of moving to a new country and adapting to a new culture.

A recent unique international research collaboration between Dr Catharine Coleborne, a mental health historian from the University of Waikato, and Professor Angela McCarthy, a migration historian from the University of Otago, looks to the past for answers.

Their three-year Marsden funded project has focused on records from 19th century migrants in medical and welfare institutions in Australia and New Zealand in order to gain understanding around how migrants are affected by social change through migration.

"We examined the medical records of thousands of past patients and learned of their struggles, finding their intensely personal stories inside the archival records," says Coleborne.

"Many of these immigrants could not speak English and were unable to explain their mental distress to medical authorities and tended to languish inside institutions as a result."

With a transnational scope, drawing on records from public and private institutions for the insane in Dunedin, Auckland, and Melbourne between 1860 and 1910, and over 7,000 mental health records examined, it is the largest scale study of its type to date.

The research project, called Migration, Ethnicity and Insanity: New Zealand and Australia, 1860-1910 will ultimately culminate in a new book for Coleborne, and joint research outcomes such as monographs, theses, journal articles, chapters, an edited collection, and public presentations.

Dr Coleborne and Professor McCarthy hope that this study will not only enhance the history of medicine, migration and ethnicity, but also contribute to our current understandings of the challenges facing migrants and provide insights to improve our own systems in place for the mentally ill.

Supported by the Royal Society of New Zealand Marsden Fund.