Suicides show the depth of mental health crisis in the Traveller community

By Seamus O’Reilly

The Traveller community has been rocked in the past weeks by the deaths of children by suicide, including children reported to be as young as nine and 11 years of age. These events are not only heartbreakingly tragic but expose the gross mistreatment and marginalisation of Travellers in Ireland.

Mental health crisis

There is a mental health crisis in Ireland with inaction and a lack of investment, for young people particularly. This is felt even more acutely among Travellers. The death-by-suicide rate in this community is seven times higher than the rest of the Irish population and accounts for 11% of deaths in this community. The discrimination and marginalisation they face creates the circumstances in which mental health, and health in general, for Travellers is very poor.

Following the recent deaths, Martin Collins from Pavee Point called on the Taoiseach to intervene on this issue. He cited the commitment in the Programme for Government for a national health strategy for Travellers, but there has been no action on this for over two years. Roderic O’Gorman, Green Party TD and Minister for Equality, continues the well-established practice of government inaction on Traveller equality, which amounts to an act of hostility. 

Systemic inequality 

Travellers are also subjected to discrimination from the bosses in Ireland, with the rate of unemployment standing at 80.2%, as high as 87% for Traveller men. This is combined with discrimination when it comes to the provision of accommodation and housing. 

Scandalously, many councils continue to refuse to even draw down the Traveller-specific accommodation budget they have been allocated. 39% face discrimination from landlords when seeking to rent a home. The 2016 census showed 39% of all Travellers in severe overcrowding. No doubt, the 2021 Census will show a deepening of this problem. More recent data from the southwest shows 85% of this oppressed minority living in homelessness, or in insecure or inadequate accommodation.

The Irish state has discriminated against Travellers since its foundation 100 years ago. An example of this was seen in the 1960s, when a racist “assimilationist” policy was explicitly adopted, resulting in attacks on Traveller identity and culture. State policy meant deliberate and conscious attempts to prevent the provision of adequate and culturally appropriate accommodation and services.

In 2017, Travellers won recognition by the Irish state as an ethnic group after many years of hard campaigning. There were hopes this would mark the end of the assimilationist policy and begin to end the discrimination. The past five years, however, have shown that ethnicity recognition alone is not enough. There is a need to keep up the fight to end racism and anti-Traveller bigotry.

Action needed now

We need immediate action to tackle the mental health crisis facing Travellers, including a properly funded counselling service provided by the state that is free at the point of use. It also requires a national public health service that is run in the interests of people, not profit. Crucially, this crisis necessitates action against all forms of discrimination and marginalisation. We need the building of culturally appropriate accommodation for Travellers, along with a struggle for the building of public homes for all who need them. Measures should be taken, such as the teaching of Traveller history and culture in schools, that can help destigmitasise this oppressed minority. 

Travellers and the broader working class are natural allies when it comes to struggling to end the crisis in the provision of homes, investment in education and to improve mental healthcare. They also have a common interest in ending this capitalist system that ferments racist ideas and is built on discrimination and inequality, and fighting for a democratic socialist society, when each human being can develop to their full potential.

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