Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Tuesday, 8 October 2019

Joint Oireachtas Committee On Key Issues Affecting The Traveller Community

Traveller Mental Health: Discussion (Resumed)

Ms Sandra McDonagh:

I am the managing director of the Offaly Traveller Movement and I am also a social worker by profession. I am a very proud Traveller and welcome the opportunity to speak to committee members today.

It is not often that the local context is presented at a national level and I am here to talk about the lives of Travellers in County Offaly. I will speak about the important work that we do at a local level in an organisation that is managed and driven by Travellers, and an organisation that focuses on human rights and social justice. I want people to understand the importance of the local Traveller movement and what it means to the Traveller whom it serves. As a Traveller and a mental health social worker, today is a important opportunity to shine a light on the very significant issue of mental health within my community and the need for improvements in the mental health services and supports for my people.

In Offaly, 127 Travellers, which includes 71 children, live on the side of the road or at unofficial halting sites. This means that they live daily with no running water, toilets or refuse collection. Travellers in Offaly suffer discrimination on a daily basis and it has increased in recent years. An example of this discrimination followed the presidential election last year when we experienced an increase in racist incidents being reported to us. To add to the daily racism my community fared badly on every indicator of disadvantage such as social exclusion, unemployment, health status, life expectancy and formal education.

To be honest, I could continue with more. It is the multiplicity of these issues that is causing the mental health crisis and high rates of suicide that are devastating my community. It is very important that we are resourced to work together to change this.

As we work with the most marginalised and disadvantaged community in the county, we ensure that our services and programmes are culturally appropriate, innovative, creative and fully engaged with by the local Traveller community. One service we offer is the Travelling To Well-being mental health service that I will discuss with the committee. Travelling to Well-being was established in the Offaly Traveller Movement in 2012 as a response to our countywide community consultation with Travellers in Offaly and the All-Ireland Traveller health study. The service employs a full-time dedicated mental health professional who responds to local needs in a culturally sensitive way.

When a Traveller presents to our service it is not just with one issue but a multitude of complex issues that have escalated over many years due to a lack of engagement with services. The issues that people present with include suicidal ideation, suicide attempts, issues relating to abuse, welfare rights, housing issues, relationship breakdown, family issues, bereavement and substance misuse, to name a few. Since 2012, the number of Travellers accessing the service has steadily increased. Between 2013 and 2015, 124 Travellers engaged with the service. However, from May to September last year, a five-month period, we had 137 Travellers access the service, with 400 interventions. Some 29 of these interventions were a response to suicidal ideation and attempted suicides. This year we are seeing an even bigger demand for the service, which we are struggling to meet.

The major success factor of this service is that it is based in a respected and renowned Traveller organisation. I cannot stress enough the importance of trust and of a service that is working from a community-led context that is respectful and supportive to the culture and identity of Travellers. Travelling to Well-being links Travellers to mainstream mental health services, but this can take a long time to achieve due to the ongoing issues of mistrust and fear of being rejected and misunderstood within the mainstream services. We have found in the majority of cases that we are often the first point of contact for Travellers accessing mental health support.

It is evident that Travellers are experiencing alarming rates of poor mental health and suicide. In fact, one of my colleagues openly said to me that eight of his first cousins have died by suicide. The saddest thing about this is that he is not the only Traveller who has lost multiple relatives to suicide. Families are destroyed before our eyes. Despite considerable efforts by the Government to reduce health inequalities and improve the health and well-being of the nation, Travellers continue to experience poorer mental health and higher rates of suicide compared with the general population.

If I could leave the committee with one request, it would be that it would ensure that our evidence-based Travelling to Well-being service and other similar programmes that are working and supporting Travellers would be properly resourced so that these stories and statistics become things of the past. How can the Government watch my people suffer and die and do nothing about it? We need action. The time for talk is over. We need the Government's support and a national Traveller mental health strategy with ring-fenced funding. We need fully resourced mental health teams in every county based in Traveller-led organisations and for the existing mental health services to respond to this epidemic in an appropriate way. Only then can we have hope.


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