Men’s Development and Health Care Worker Hugh Friel was one of those protesting outside Leinster House last May to raise awareness of the mental health crisis facing the community. We caught up with Hugh, who’s part of the Men’s Development and Health Care team at Donegal Travellers Project to ask him to explain the impact this epidemic is having on his community, he tells us, “Traveller suicide is a complex phenomenon and one which is multi-dimensional. There is a myriad of reasons why an individual completes suicide, however, social, cultural and structural factors can be identified in the underlying causes of suicide within the Traveller community.”
Unfortunately, age-old stereotypes and discrimination have played their part in this horrific situation, as Hugh explains, “Racism in its various different forms and levels such as individual, community and societal appears to be one of the root causes of Travellers’ high prevalence of suicide. Racism has detrimental effects on help-seeking behaviours which stop Travellers from reaching out for support or help. This then can transpire in the use of maladaptive coping mechanisms such as drugs or alcohol. The use of drugs and alcohol has correlations with mental health such as anxiety or depression which are all correlated risk factors in incidences of suicide.”
Society and cultural attitudes have not helped either, with Hugh telling us, “Racism can negatively impact Travellers’ access to secure accommodation, experiences of education, access to the labour market, and engagement in physical health which are all important factors in determining one’s mental health. Unfortunately, Travellers fare poorly on all these social indicators. In eradicating racism at all levels of society against Travellers we remove a significant burden and barrier impacting their lives.”
Traveller youths have especially been impacted over the last few months, with Hugh saying, “young people in difficult circumstances feel saturated in negativity and feel left with few solutions. Young people often need someone to actively listen while acknowledging their circumstances and feelings.”
Hugh is in no doubt as to what direct engagement with those feeling immense pressure in their lives can achieve, saying, “This co-regulation and listening ear can be pivotal in lifting the weight of negative circumstances on their shoulders. Being solution-focused rather than pathologising can also benefit young people, as with tragic life circumstances comes the limitation of hope. Supporting the young person to think of practical solutions or actions to real-life problems can also empower them to take control of their lives.”
Hugh outlines a number of solutions for community members going through difficult times. “Statutory and non-statutory organisations now offer a wide range of services to support individuals dealing with mental health difficulties such as Child and Adult Mental Health Services, Jigsaw, Traveller Counselling
Service and Pieta House.
For Travellers, local Traveller organisations can support in signposting individuals to the most appropriate services depending on the level of support they require.” However, Hugh makes it clear that “an individual’s GP should be the first port of call if an individual is feeling mental distress or difficulties.”
Two important points are made by the support worker, who divides his working time between Letterkenny and Ballyshannon. Firstly, he encourages positive thinking in challenging circumstances, saying, “Hope is fundamental in fuelling our motivation for social change. This hope is needed to ensure that there is transformational change in all of society towards the epidemic of suicide and mental health among the Traveller community. With hope, there is strength, and strength to continue advocating for better social, structural and political provisions for Travellers’ mental health.”
What advice would Hugh offer to those seeking help in their hour of need? “As said by Matt Haig ‘mental health problems don’t define who you are. They are something you experience. You walk in the rain and you feel the rain, but, importantly, you are not the rain.”
Hugh would “encourage young Travellers to speak to someone about the difficulties they are experiencing. It is challenging without a doubt to be vulnerable about your emotions; sometimes words cannot express the challenges you are facing but with support, you can overcome such challenges. Just remember: you are strong, you are loved and you are worthy.”
For anyone seeking support, contact your family doctor or log onto www.travellercounselling.ie or contact the National Traveller Mental Health
Service on Ph: 01 8721094 (Monday – Friday between the hours of 9AM – 5PM, 4PM on Fridays).