Discrimination and cultural disintegration 'top' factor in Traveller suicides

Young Traveller men are the most vulnerable to dying by suicide in Ireland today. By Sandy Hazel

In a country with already high suicide rates - fifth highest in Europe for youth suicide according to the National Office for Suicide Prevention – men are more vulnerable to suicide than women. Four times more men in Ireland take their own life than men in the UK. More people die in Ireland by suicide than in car accidents each year, yet road safety campaigns receive ten times the budget of suicide prevention.

For Travellers, the male suicide rate is over nine times that of female suicide. The most disturbing statistic is not just being in the highest risk category – between three and five times the national rate - but that the young Traveller man will most likely ‘complete’ the suicide at first attempt.

Suppression of emotional literacy is also a factor in future suicidal thought according to Petra Daly, project worker with Crosscare’s Traveller suicide awareness project. Being able to recognise that problems are not insurmountable, being able to talk about issues and being able to help yourself are part of the emotional literacy that Daly speaks of.

But circumstances conspire against a Traveller boy.

“Suicide Among the Irish Traveller Community 2000-2006” was prepared by Mary Rose Walker, a social worker with Wicklow County Council. Walker’s findings, which covered the whole Traveller population over a seven year period, suggest that while alcohol consumption and social exclusion are factors in suicides among Travellers there are other less obvious features at play.

A common pattern of Traveller suicide is that of the Traveller who, following the death of somebody close, takes his own life, usually by hanging. What is of major concern is that in 40% of cases where a Traveller took his/her life following the death of somebody close, that death itself was also a suicide. Walker pointed to changes in society which mean Travellers have had to cope with increased hostility, difficulty with identity, loss of culture and traditions and lack of purpose in life.

Alcohol or substance abuse, economic insecurity, violence and depression  assume an additional risk level when experienced by a vulnerable Traveller according to Walker’s research. “It may therefore not be so surprising that an immediate crisis, such as death or marital conflict, can act as a trigger factor for suicide,” she reported.

Daly agrees that alcohol consumption and poverty don’t tell the whole story. “We have to look at why Traveller men are using drugs or alcohol,” Daly said. Cultural disintegration and societal discrimination “…must be top of the list”.  “The brave boy syndrome – our socialisation of boys is a factor – but if your culture is not recognised and if services are not aimed at you when you are marginalised then this is a problem for esteem and quality of life,” she said in an interview with Politico.

The social exclusion cited may not always be from mainstream society. Walker found that exclusion from their own community was a major factor in Traveller suicide. According to Walker, the culture of family within the Traveller community is so strong that “in the absence of other professional or geographical attachments the family is all important…isolation from family networks can be detrimental to a Traveller’s mental health”.  This is called a social death.

But it is exactly these strong ties that Walker says should be used to help suicidal young men. Her research found that the Traveller community had a very high tolerance for troubled members. The kinship – families working together, keeping the elderly and sick within the community, dysfunctional members are kept within the group – is the strength of Traveller life and can be used to provide support to individual members. “With appropriate information and training, and above all the necessary supports, there exist within the Traveller community the necessary strengths to develop their resilience to suicide,” said Walker.

Daly suggests that while the strength of the family can be a force for good there should be some caution. “There is still a huge stigma attached to suicide and this manifests itself in not talking about it. There is a real fear among the community that by talking about it you may put the idea into someone’s head,” said Daly. “Suicide is seen as a real option within Traveller families and it must be challenged.”

Family is part of the problem too, however. While mainstream society will talk over problems (including family problems) with friends, Daly says that for young Travellers, "friends are your family". "It makes it much harder to confide in anyone.”

Daly is critical of some support services who claim to have open door policies but do not target Travellers as a group in special need.

“There are reams and reams of help and support available in print, but it is actually acting as a block to accessing help as 70% of Travellers have very low literacy.”

The internet is not much better if you don’t have electricity, a computer and a modem. Radio programming can be sensationalist, unbalanced and patchy.

Primary care, delivered by Travellers themselves with mobile phone support, is seen as the most effective way to help according to those working on the ground. With Traveller communities so marginalised, any cuts to this type of community development, as suggested in the McCarthy report, may have serious consequences.

If a Traveller does talk to friends, any help they can offer depends on the information they themselves have, which may be very little according to Daly.

“The message we want to get out is that everyone should be taken seriously and listened to. We need to talk less about preventing deaths and more about promoting life.”


Suicide helpline numbers:
Samaritans 1850 609 090
Aware Traveller Counselling service 1890 303 302