Death trap

Why do Travellers have such high suicide rates?

14th January 2019

The suicide rate in the Traveller community is six times higher than the general population, according to the All-Ireland Traveller Health Study. This increases to seven times higher when focused on Traveller men, and 11% of Traveller deaths are accountable to suicide. Prejudice, poverty and a lack of accessible services have proven to be a tragic combination for one of the most disadvantaged groups in the UK and Ireland.

During the Irish presidential election in October, the climate of fear for Travellers was reinforced by the highly publicised comments of candidate Peter Casey. In the face of discrimination and multiple social barriers, poor mental health has reached a crisis point within the community — a 2017 survey found that 82% of the Travellers surveyed had been personally affected by suicide.

Despite the prevalence of poor mental health, both a lack of cultural competency in the health service and a powerful stigma within the Traveller communities themselves prevent people from seeking help.

Disadvantage

There are a range of factors that could be contributing to poor mental health within the Traveller community, particularly if you look at the social issues affecting the demographic. Infant mortality is higher than that of any other group, the life expectancy for Travellers is 12 years below the national average and they face multiple barriers to healthcare, housing and education. A lack of formal qualifications continue to exclude Travellers from employment and many are often pressured to hide their identity in the workplace.

Thomas McCann, Traveller activist and founder of the Traveller Counselling Service, points to poor living conditions as a driving force behind poor mental health in the community.

“The exclusion and the discrimination is a big factor, another factor is relating to accommodation with the introduction of anti-trespass legislation,” he says.

caravan
Recent changes to the way the traveller community is policed mean that caravans are being impounded much more often

In Ireland, the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act was passed in 2002 and it outlaws trespassing on both public and private land, effectively making nomadism a criminal offence. The traditional lifestyle of Travellers living in the UK is also under threat as the number of government-approved areas to settle are rapidly decreasing.

“You can no longer legally travel in Ireland,” McCann tells The Overtake. “If you move now from one place to another, it is a criminal matter. It used to be a civil matter. It used to be that if the council wanted to move you, they had to offer you alternative accommodation. Now if a complaint is made, you have to move in 48 hours and if you don’t move, your caravan can be taken into the pound.

“While at the same time, the council isn’t building Traveller-specific accommodation. So there is massive overcrowding on sites, it’s illegal to travel and, at the same time, councils have been sending back funding to the Exchequer that was earmarked for Traveller accommodation.

“All of these things lead to stress, anxiety and depression amongst Travellers,” he says.

Four out of five Gypsies, Roma and Travellers have experienced hate crime

Local authorities failed to deliver suitable accommodation for Travellers last year, despite having €9m (£8m) allocated to Traveller-specific housing across Ireland. With over €4 of the budget left unspent, the needs of Travellers are not being addressed.

In the UK, the living situation is also precarious. It was recently reported that a growing number of local authorities have introduced bans to prevent Travellers from settling on their land. Councils have reportedly obtained court injunctions to force families living in unauthorised encampments to move on, despite a critical shortage of authorised sites. Being forcefully moved around the country will affect the wellbeing of Travellers, especially those with children, as registering for both schools and healthcare can be impossible without a permanent address.

“The last acceptable form of racism”

Research conducted by the Traveller Movement, a charity dedicated to advocacy and awareness, indicates that Travellers are experiencing the “last acceptable form of racism”. As an ethnic group, they are protected under the 2010 Equality Act, but many Travellers still face discrimination on an everyday basis. According to the research, four out of five Gypsies, Roma and Travellers have experienced hate crime, either physical or verbal. Other statistics reveal 70% have experienced discrimination in schools, a place where stereotypes are often reinforced. To strengthen their findings, the charity conducted a YouGov poll surveying the general public.

Two thirds of the people YouGov surveyed didn’t realise Travellers were an ethnic group

“This showed that a significant number of people (37%) wouldn’t have felt happy with their children going on a playdate with a Gypsy, Roma or Traveller child,” a spokesperson from the Traveller Movement informs The Overtake.

“A significant number of people (42%) wouldn’t feel comfortable if one of their close family members married a Gypsy, Roma or Traveller. Two thirds of the people YouGov surveyed didn’t realise Travellers were an ethnic group.

“Many people don’t realise that there is an ethnicity factor. It’s seen as a life choice that people feel more than ready to criticise.”

travellers
Attacking Travellers can be seen as an “acceptable form of racism” 📸 Bryan Ledgard

Anti-Traveller rhetoric

The events of the recent Presidential election show that anti-Traveller sentiment is still commonplace across Ireland. Candidate Peter Casey made some sweeping statements denying the ethnicity of Travellers and claiming that they are “basically people camping in someone else’s land”. Instead of working at detriment to his campaign, Casey finished as the unlikely runner-up with 23% of the vote. His comments improved his election chances and emboldened others to speak out against Travellers, suggesting that the businessman tapped into a national mood with his frustrations towards the community.

It is arguably this discrimination, rooted in public institutions and exemplified by high-profile figures, that has pushed the Traveller community to a crisis point. While the media have been quick to condemn Casey, they have also provided a platform for his statements to reach a wide audience.

Yvonne MacNamara, chief executive of the Traveller Movement, believes that “Peter Casey’s surge in popularity after his use of anti-Traveller rhetoric is indicative of the severe hatred that Travelling communities have to face on a daily basis”.

He never apologised, he never met with Travellers down in Tipperary

“With such pervasive discrimination against Irish Travellers in this case but against Gypsies, Roma and Irish Travellers here in the UK, it’s no wonder that Gypsy, Roma and Irish Traveller (GRT) communities have some of the worst outcomes when it comes to mental health,” she says.

McCann agrees that Casey’s statements have had a devastating impact on the Traveller community.

“[Casey] gave a platform to all the people who are anti-Traveller, although we have to be careful because some people may have voted for him for other reasons — he said a lot about welfare. But I think he did use it as an election strategy,” McCann says.

“It shifted his position from around 2% to 21% so the Traveller issue gave him a lot of coverage. It creates a lot of fear amongst Travellers, those statements. He never apologised, he never met with Travellers down in Tipperary. It was a publicity stunt.”

Inaccessible services

Despite the discrimination experienced by Travellers and the impact it is likely to have on their mental health, only one out of five have been reaching out for help. The uptake of counselling services by Travellers is historically low due to a lack of understanding within both the community and the mental health services. For those without a fixed address, access to healthcare in any form is limited.

In 2008, McCann launched the Traveller Counselling Service in Dublin as a response to the lack of culturally inclusive health services.

“We wanted to launch a culturally inclusive counselling and psychotherapy service, particularly for Travellers,” he says. “The difference is that it takes culture and ethnicity into account, and the values and norms of the community. There’s a huge difference as a lot of counselling looks at the individual without taking into account their social or cultural context.

“I think cultural competency in the mental health service is crucial for the engagement with diverse communities, including Travellers. Otherwise, services are operating from an ethnocentric perspective, the perspective of the majority community.”

travellers
Men and women can have quite gendered roles in Traveller communities, which means men are less likely to talk about mental health issues 📸 Bryan Ledgard

A “suffer in silence” mentality is also prevalent throughout the Traveller community. Fear and shame often prevent people from seeking help, something that charities like the Traveller Movement are campaigning to change.

“Travellers also need to be employed in the health services,” McCann adds. “If your own people are not reflected, you’re seen as outsiders. Travellers need to be employed — also for more employment!”

Moving forward

Alongside a national strategy dedicated to the mental health of Travellers, McCann believes that flagging up the identity of Travellers within the health service is a crucial step to tackling poor mental health and the high suicide rate. Currently, neither the NHS or the HSE in Ireland monitor or collect statistics for Travellers using their services.

“There is no ethnic identifier in the mental health service so Travellers are invisible,” McCann says. “It’s really hard to address the issues and establish their rights if they are invisible in the system.”

The Traveller Movement are also making mental health a top priority.  

“That’s why we launched our campaign “youRnotalone” this year, and we will be running a number of suicide awareness sessions for members of the communities to get involved in,” MacNamara says.

One of the charity’s aims is to get Gypsy Roma and Traveller History Month widely adopted across public bodies and schools. Since its establishment in 2008, Gypsy Roma and Traveller History Month has been running every June to raise awareness of these communities and challenge deeply ingrained prejudice, the issue at the root of many of the problems Travellers face.

14th January 2019