Irish Traveller Movement Marks World International Day to Prevent Suicide

Irish Traveller Movement is the national advocacy and membership platform which brings together Travellers and representative organisations to develop collective solutions on issues faced by the community in order to achieve greater equality for Travellers. We challenge the racism at individual, cultural and structural levels which Travellers face and promote integration and equality. We are mandated by our membership to bring forward policy and related matters to national structures and represent the community on national government-led fora and strategies and across National Traveller policy, including mental health.

Today is World Suicide Prevention Day, a day that was first introduced by the International Association of Suicide Prevention (IASP). The theme for 2021 is ‘Creating Hope Through Action’. In Ireland, this is a theme that underpins our collective efforts to prevent suicide and is reflected in the national strategy to reduce suicide, Connecting for Life.

As a result of intergenerational exclusion and discrimination, Travellers fair poorly with regard to mental health.  The long-term erosion of our culture and identity has led to a national crisis in Traveller mental health which is complicated by limited access to, and availability of, supports for Travellers experiencing mental health problems. This has significantly contributed to a worsening of Traveller health in Ireland.

Traveller mental health remains hidden within society and the Traveller community. The All Ireland Traveller Health Study (AITHS) 2010 found the rate of suicide was six times higher than the settled population, accounting for approximately 11% of all Traveller deaths. Since the publication of this study, there has been a further rise of suicide in the Traveller community and poorer health outcomes. According to the National Traveller Survey 2017, a national representative sample (3) Suicide was the cause of 11% of all Traveller deaths, most common in young Traveller men aged 15-25 and overall 6 times higher than the settled population. In 2017, 7 out of 10 Travellers said that their mental health has worsened over the last 5-10 years and 4 in 10 are concerned for their own mental health.

There has been a steep increase in deaths by suicide amongst Traveller women. Reflecting the reach and impact on a small community, 82% of Travellers reported having been affected by suicide, 4 in 10 in their wider family, 49% among local Travellers or neighbours and 38% among friends or colleagues, creating a catastrophic affect with families impacted with multi-level effect. 

Insight from the qualitative component of the AITHS illustrates some of the difficult issues currently faced by Travellers. These include declining family structures and religious certainty, lack of employment, and pressure to engage in damaging group activities such as heavy drinking. Such factors, coupled with a sense of exclusion and experiences of extreme prejudice, can result in generalised poor self-esteem and self-efficacy, which is associated with depression and other mental health problems. These conditions are, in turn, related to higher incidences of suicide. (ESRI, 2018). 

The incidence of suicide in the community is outrunning the very slow progress to date of limited strategies such as Connecting for Life, with little progress reported. The lack of data, either by way of a national study or of an assessment of need, worsens the problem. The Central Statistics Office and National Suicide Research Foundation has a role here when recording and monitoring. Currently, it is the remit of the Central Statistics Office to provide statistics on suicide in Ireland, though Travellers are not included. The National Suicide Research Foundation’s own research collected in the National Self Harm Registry through hospital information, records data based on “accommodation” rather than ethnicity, specifically only one option is recorded – where a person is resident of a halting site. Its design is pro-rata below scale given the status of heightened concerns were found among Traveller living in Private Rented or Shared Accommodation. Mental health is compounded by where people live, both in terms of the quality of their accommodation and their proximity to family. This is exacerbated by Travellers being isolated from family supports and then socially excluded by local communities. Access to services For Travellers, addressing mental health needs must be contextualised to Traveller-specific determinants, the wider understanding of mental health issues, services, and resources, and the interaction and intersection of those.

Today, the Irish Traveller Movement, coinciding with World International Day to Prevent Suicide, reiterate our ask that Mary Butler TD, Minister of State for Mental Health and Older People, double her efforts to support and implement a national Traveller Mental Health Strategy with ring-fenced resources, centrally located with a specific Traveller advisory group to support its development, monitor and prioritise a national audit of Traveller suicide and commission “at-risk” research within the community and develop a nationally targeted suicide prevention campaign for Travellers.