Minnie Connors: The Story of one Woman’s Crusade to Secure Mental Health Supports for her Community.
By Miriam Kerins
When a beloved family member dies by suicide, the people affected most dramatically are those closest to them. And, if a certain family member has daily interaction with the deceased, then they will very often feel the loss on a more intense and intimate level. As suicide rates among the Traveller community are worryingly high, and, during this heart breaking time of bereavement we know that both the appropriate and the necessary supports may be in short supply. With that in mind, we travelled to County Wexford to meet this year’s Traveller Pride winner Minnie Connors, who was awarded her accolade for establishing a Traveller led community support group with a focus on promoting mental health and well-being for all.
The death of her sister Alice motivated Minnie to set up the Traveller led support group.
Named after the energetic and talkative character Minnie Brennan from RTE’s The Riordan’s, 40 year old Minnie Connors, (nee Berry) is a proud wife to the lovely Jim, 42, and doting mother to five children, Becky 18, Mary 17, Gerry 15, Kitty 10 and Paddy 9. We caught up with this impressive lady and her ten member strong committee at the Wexford Traveller Development Group which is located at Francis Street Wexford to find out what motivated an already busy mum to set up this much needed initiative.
“Our family has suffered from a series of suicides, the most recent one being my sister Alice who was only 24 years when she took her own life.”
Telling us her story, Minnie disclosed a litany of heart breaking incidents. “Our family has suffered from a series of suicides, the most recent one being my sister Alice who was only 24 years when she took her own life;” said Minnie. Alice was one year deceased on 15th July, and Minnie tells us, she had been unwell for a couple of days, and had reached out to her family, asking for help. “We took Alice to the family doctor and he said it was depression and he said she’d pull herself out of it.” Unhappy with this alleged diagnosis, Minnie decided to seek a second opinion. “We took her to an outreach service and the nurse there decided Alice wasn’t ill enough to see a doctor. So on Saturday morning Mammy realised that Alice was no better, and that she (Alice) was crying and saying ‘please help me, bring me to a hospital.’ But we were told the local hospital could do nothing on a Saturday and if Alice was still the same on Monday to take her to our own doctor. Alice had a cigarette with me and then she said she was going to take a shower. When she had been gone a while, Mammy went looking for her and the rest of us all ran through local nearby fields searching and hoping she had gone for a walk. I then decided to look into Mammy’s bedroom window and that’s when I saw Alice and I screamed for help;” recalls Minnie.
According to a study carried out in the US, Exposure to Suicide in the Community, it is estimated that as many as ‘115 people are affected by one suicide.’ However, while Alice’s suicide has had an extremely devastating effect on Minnie’s family, tragically, they are no stranger to this gut-wrenching phenomenon. “Mammy lost a number of family members to suicide,” explained Minnie, and, as her parents felt there was a lack of professional supports following their bereavements, with this particular incident rendering them so devastated they are unable to live in the family home where Alice’s death occurred, Minnie decided it was time for her to take matters into her own hands and set up the self-help initiative.
There has never been a Traveller specific support group here.
“Following Alice’s death, at the end of August last year I was contacted by Thomas McCann through the Irish Traveller Movement (ITM). He tried to link us into support services and he asked me if I could get some Travellers together to try and do something for ourselves. You see, we’ve got no Traveller organisation in this county. In fact, there has never been a Traveller specific support group here. We have received funding from Wexford County Council who has been an invaluable support. In fact there are two gentlemen there called Ger Mackay and Michael Sweeney who have been wonderful to us.” Said Minnie. Indeed, while advocating for better mental health services for her community, Minnie recounted many facts and figures to these helpful gentlemen who admitted they had not realised the situation had reached somewhat of a crisis point. “They were very sympathetic and said they had never heard the stories I was telling them. They have nine Traveller women working as Primary Health Care Workers but not once did they bring any information on (mental health) to them;” disclosed Minnie, who was, through her own experiences, in a position to properly enlighten them.
If we can save just one child, it’ll all have been through the power of Alice that we got it done.
The support group, who are made up of 10 board members, including six Travellers, have been a great support to Minnie herself, who is recovering from having breast cancer four years ago. An illness, she told us, that has resulted in her undergoing a total mastectomy and removal of her lymph nodes. “This group has helped me and made my life worthwhile. The group gives me a purpose in life. When we’re up and running in our own premises, I can officially say that Alice had a hand in this. Alice didn’t die for nothing. This support service will be a legacy in her name that will follow us everywhere. If we can save just one child, it’ll all have been through the power of Alice that we got it done. People don’t know there is such a lack of services available until they go looking for them.”
Minnie is hoping to be in a position to study psychology, telling us “Thomas McCann is going to help me with my application.”
For those struggling with suicidal thoughts, access to mental health treatment can be key to saving a life. If you are personally struggling, or if you know someone who is struggling, please encourage them to seek help—even if this is simply helping them to secure that first appointment, it shows them they have someone who understands; that they have a shoulder to cry on and an ear to listen to them. For more information please log onto www2.hse.ie, click on ‘find support services’ to find support that can ‘be delivered online, by telephone and face to face.’