Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Tuesday, 8 October 2019

Joint Oireachtas Committee On Key Issues Affecting The Traveller Community

Traveller Mental Health: Discussion (Resumed)

Mr. Thomas McCann:

I thank the committee for inviting us to make a statement and to engage with the committee. With regard to mental health and, in particular, suicide, there has been a loss of hope but there is some hope in the community that this will bring change.

At present, as the Chairman said, the Traveller community in Ireland is experiencing a mental health crisis. Let us be in no doubt about that. The word "crisis" is sometimes used too easily but this is a real crisis that affects every Traveller family in Ireland. In any of the community meetings we have had throughout the country, if people are asked how many of them have been affected by suicide, nearly every single Traveller in the room puts up their hand. I would invite any member of this committee to do that in any area they go out to with members of the Traveller community, and to see the impact of that. This was highlighted in a recent study, carried out by Behaviour and Attitudes on behalf of the Community Foundation for Ireland, which found that 90% of Travellers agree that mental health problems are common among the community.

This crisis has developed over a number of decades. I say "decades" because the 1963 itinerancy report, which in some ways is responsible for the State's interventions with Travellers and where we are now, noted that mental health was not a significant issue among Travellers at that point in time. We can see, therefore, that a crisis has developed since then. There are probably other markers, but that is certainly one that tells us that in the 1960s, prior to the publication of the report, mental health was not a significant issue among Travellers.

The Commission on Itinerancy did quite a lot of research, if anyone has the chance to look at the report. Unfortunately, the report contributed to the situation we are in now. I know that in recent times there has been talk of the crisis and now we have this committee, but the State has ignored the crisis and the warnings of Traveller organisations and the community. The Traveller Counselling Service has been ten years in existence. We highlighted some of these issues ten years ago. We tried to point to what was happening and coming down the tracks, and we were ignored. Mental health issues have been ignored in Ireland for a long time and put out to the periphery generally. Travellers were only one more group that was part of that but the issue certainly has been ignored. An example of this, with particular reference to Travellers, is that the State and its services ignored in its own policy, A Vision for Change, which recommended culturally inclusive mental health services. That policy was published 11 years ago and there has still been very little action taken on it. It is Government policy. A specific recommendation was made in A Vision for Change 11 years ago that mental health services be made culturally inclusive but it has not been acted on. That is just one example of this.

Suicide among Travellers has continued to rise. As we heard, the suicide rate among Traveller men and women is much higher than that in the settled community. Members of the Traveller community are taking their owns lives frequently. Sometimes it is monthly and at times it is weekly. It is an issue in the community. There is a fear in families when a family member goes off and they do not get a phone call from him or her or whatever. That is a real fear in the community. The 2017 study found, as the Chairman said, that the whole community is affected. As I come to end the of my contribution, I will tell the committee why I say this is a national issue. It is not a localised or regionalised issue but a national issue that affects the whole community. For many families it has become intergenerational, in that generations of families have been affected by suicide. I think Ms Minnie Connors said this in her presentation to the committee, and other Travellers will say the issue is now intergenerational, where families have in some cases taken their own lives.

Unless the Government takes appropriate and immediate action, this situation will continue to worsen. We are in a crisis. As the Chairman said, it is a shocking crisis and an indictment of the State's lack of action that members of a community are dying on a regular basis. The mental health crisis is growing and growing, yet there is no real, immediate action to address it. It feels to the community that there is unbearable suffering among families who have lost loved ones, sometimes multiple members of the family. The community feels that it is being ignored and that the State shows indifference to the Traveller community in respect of these problems.

People will talk about this and remark that it is terrible but the community feels there is indifference to their suffering. The Traveller community has been crying out for support to address mental health problems but those calls seem to be falling on deaf ears. A lot of people have talked about the statistics. I do not propose to speak about them, except to say that we have them and can provide them. How many more families have to suffer before the State decides to take action and to intervene in a way that supports the community in addressing these issues?

Travellers have no political representation and are dependent on the goodwill of certain politicians, some of whom are seated at this table and others in political parties. While this goodwill is welcome, it has not been enough to address this problem. We need to move beyond goodwill if we are to have any chance of addressing some of the issues that many of the families and groups on the ground are facing on a daily basis. We need action from the State in the form of a national strategy. This is a human rights issue. There can be no mistake about that. Travellers have been calling for support to make changes, including today at this meeting. People are really struggling on the ground to put in place initiatives. This needs to be addressed as a human rights issue if there is to be change because people do not believe that goodwill is enough to shift it.

In terms of the State addressing some of these issues, there must first be political will and leadership to take action. Up to now, there has not been political will on a range of issues that Travellers are dealing with, including accommodation. There is a range of issues I could mention in respect of which there is no political will to address them. Travellers need to feel that the State is taking an active role in trying to change some of the conditions.

I say this is a human rights issue because the Traveller community does not have political representation, it has been excluded from the apparatus of the State, it does not have a voice and it is an ethnic minority in this State whose plight and conditions have been ignored. The State could be challenged on its human rights record. There is much talk about human rights in other countries. We need to look at how Ireland as a State has allowed an ethnic minority to get into such a state that people are dying on a regular basis and taking their own lives. We need to examine the human rights record of Ireland in regard to the Traveller community.

In terms of address of this specific issue, there is need for the immediate establishment of a national mental health steering group that would develop a national Traveller mental health strategy and would have the resources to ensure it is implemented. During the most recent downturn, the Traveller community was hit with a cut in resources of approximately 90% across the board cut. These resources have not as yet been put back into the community, in particular in terms of education and so on. The Government needs to make sure there are resources available to the Traveller community, particularly at local organisation level.

Other people before the committee today know of the struggles we have in engaging with local groups and communities. The ideas and initiatives are there and there are concepts in the community about what is needed. The issue is getting resources. People have to look at getting resources from here and there, and these resources are not there at a local level, particularly when it comes to mental health. I will finish at that but I am happy to answer any questions.


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