Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Tuesday, 8 October 2019

Joint Oireachtas Committee On Key Issues Affecting The Traveller Community

Traveller Mental Health: Discussion (Resumed)

Photo of Colette KelleherColette Kelleher (Independent) | Oireachtas source

I welcome members and viewers who may be watching our proceedings on Oireachtas TV to this meeting of the Joint Committee on Key Issues affecting the Traveller Community. The purpose of today's meeting is to continue our deliberations on the topic of Traveller mental health. We will meet representatives of the Travelling Counselling Service, West Limerick Primary Health Care Project, Offaly Traveller Movement, Galway Traveller Movement and Exchange House Ireland. I welcome everyone who is speaking today and the considerable number of submissions that we received. This is the second hearing of three about Travellers and mental health. Our task as a committee is to consider some of the key issues affecting Travellers, as identified by Travellers and Traveller organisations. The subjects that we are looking at are those identified as being the most important to consider.

After our hearings two weeks ago, I think we can be in no doubt that mental health affects Travellers to a far greater extent than the non-Traveller community, and there is a crisis and epidemic. The widespread impact of mental ill health among a small, tight-knit community is getting worse and the response and resources currently in place are wholly inadequate and often inappropriate. We heard some harrowing and heartbreaking testimonies from Mr. Martin Reilly and Ms Minnie Connors, both who were left devastated, reeling, traumatised and permanently on red alert from the effects of mental ill health and suicide on their family members, friends and loved ones. Ms Connors gave examples of everyday prejudice and discrimination experienced by her own family, even by the youngest in her family at school. The sense of wondering who will be next came over very strongly at our meeting on 24 September, along with the constant anxiety that the witnesses probably know only too well.

The Traveller Mental Health Network told the committee in its submission that 90% of Travellers agree that mental health problems are common among the community. Travellers are at a high risk, as a group, for suicide, which occurs at a rate six times higher than among the general population. Some 82% of the community have been affected by suicide. Some 56% of Travellers have reported that poor physical and mental health restricted normal daily activities. Some 62.7% of Traveller women and 59.4% of Traveller men disclosed that their mental health was not good enough for one or more days in the past 30 days. These statistics are stark, shocking and unacceptable. The witnesses know them, we need to know them and every Member of the Oireachtas should know those statistics by the time we are finished and, more than that, they should act on them. I know it is hard to share the difficult, harrowing stories but we need to develop that knowledge and understanding.

Mr. Bernard Joyce of the Irish Traveller Movement gave us an estimated figure of the number of suicides in the Traveller community so far this year. He estimated 30 deaths, including some children. That was only an estimate to the end of August. I have been told of at least one other young woman, a young mother, who took her own life since the committee met two weeks ago. There may well be others. We just do not know and that is why the system of having an ethnic identifier, as so many of the witnesses have indicated in their submissions, is so important. Mr. Patrick Reilly of Pavee Point and others highlighted the issue and called for the adoption of ethnic identifiers to allow for accurate information and better social policy and service planning on foot of that.

The Pavee Point submission stated: "suicide is so common in our community that it is part of our everyday reality. Attending Traveller funerals due to suicide has become so common that we don’t make no wonder of it anymore."

Mr. Reilly contrasted this shocking reality with the deep cuts in health and other budgets. Today is budget day, which is why some of our members will have to come and go during the meeting. Budgets are very important but, from what Mr. Bernard Joyce said, there was no dedicated budget in response to the findings of the 2010 all-Ireland health study, which highlighted stark health and mental health inequalities. That study is now nearly ten years old but not acted upon. Brigid Quilligan described the trauma of the community. She spoke of people being treated badly from a very young age, which is surely the context of mental ill health, and she spoke of a community at breaking point and of a national crisis, where different approaches, led and formed by Travellers, were needed. She also called for the State and others to take up their responsibility.

Today, we will be further informed by Mr. Thomas McCann from the Traveller Counselling Service, Bridget Kelly from the Galway Traveller Movement, Niamh Keating from the West Limerick Primary Health Care Project, Emma Gilchreest and Sandra McDonagh from the Offaly Traveller Movement, and Maria Carnicer and Allyson Coogan. We will listen and learn. We appreciate the pain that is involved in sharing these stories. We wish it was otherwise than that they have to do this, but it is to inform action, which is the purpose. We appreciate that, behind each statistic, there is a person the witnesses love and who loved them.

In accordance with procedures, I am required to draw attention to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given. They are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise nor make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make that person identifiable. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that members should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside of these Houses, or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

I remind members and witnesses to turn off their mobile phones because this interferes with the sound system and the recording. I also wish to advise that any submissions or opening statements that witnesses have made to the joint committee will be published on the committee's website after this meeting.

After the presentations by witnesses, there will be questions from members of the joint committee. I call Mr. Thomas McCann to make his opening statement.


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