By Gráinne Ní Aodha, PA
Traveller groups and campaigners gathered in front of Leinster House on Tuesday to raise awareness of the mental health crisis facing members of the Travelling community.
During the demonstration, musicians played songs and speakers told demonstrators that they had been let down by promises made by successive governments to help improve Travellers’ mental health.
Minister for Equality and Integration, Roderic O’Gorman, and a number of TDs attended the demonstration.
Addressing the crowd, Hugh Friel of the Donegal Travellers Group said: “Travellers are dying every day by suicide”, and that mental health issues had been exacerbated during the Covid-19 pandemic.
He said difficulties accessing education, employment, good accommodation and healthcare were contributing to a mental health crisis among the Travelling community.
“As a Traveller man, I have to die 15 years earlier than a settled man. Why is that, and who is accountable?
“Who’s accountable when it comes to the mental health issues that we’re facing as a community? The Government. Micheál Martin needs to listen.”
Mr Friel added that the Government expected Traveller organisations to be a “one-stop shop” for all the Travelling community’s needs, which needed to end.
Senator Eileen Flynn said that she has been “begging” the minister of state for mental health to address the mental health crisis faced by Travellers for two years.
“It’s so tough to be yourself, and be a member of the Travelling community. You can’t walk up the street and somebody has something to say to you just because you’re a Traveller.”
According to a recent Behaviour & Attitudes survey, 82 per cent of Travellers have been affected by suicide, and 44 per cent of those affected were in their immediate family or their wider family.
Traveller George Casey, who is originally from Limerick, told the PA news agency that he lost his 16-year-old sister to suicide, and that there are a lot of young Traveller men who struggle with their mental health.
“There’s a lot of men who have taken their lives in Travelling communities.
“We’re not here for violence, we’re not here to cause trouble.
“We don’t want money off them, we’re not here for money.
“I would like somebody to be able to come out to a Traveller site and talk to Traveller families about their mental health,” he said.
“There should be a mental health person sent out to the Travelling community once a week to come and speak to us and actually speak to families about what’s going on.
“A lot of Traveller men will not talk to their partners because they think that Traveller men are supposed to look after women.”
He said that a weekly men’s woodwork service organised by Exchange House, which provides services to Travellers in the Dublin area, had saved his life.
Mental health worker at Exchange House, John Paul Collins, told the PA news agency that someone in government needs to be held accountable for a lack of progress on mental health services for the Travelling community.
“We’re looking for some sort of promise, and a promise that they’ll keep this time,” Mr Collins said.
“Because we’re going through programmes for Government, strategic reports, plans, and they all sound great, they look great on paper, (but) five years pass, (there’s a) new government. Nothing.”
He said that there are more supports available in the capital city and other urban areas, but Travellers in more rural areas struggle more.
“We’re looking at four or five suicides a week in Ireland.
“It’s the sites that we’ve forgotten about – in Offaly, a site that’s isolated in Donegal. We need boots on the ground to go in there and explain to Travellers that the supports are available – go and access them, and supports to access them. That’s all it is.”
The National Traveller Mental Health Network has called on Taoiseach Micheal Martin to meet with the group to discuss their concerns.
Later in the Dáil on Tuesday, People Before Profit/Solidarity TD Gino Kenny asked Minister for Public Expenditure Michael McGrath whether the Taoiseach would meet with Traveller groups to discuss their concerns.
“I won’t speak for the Taoiseach, but I don’t think he would be reluctant to have a meeting,” Mr McGrath said.
He said the Department of Health was fully committed to delivering healthcare services for members of the Travelling community and that the finalisation and publication of the National Traveller Health Action Plan “is a priority issue” for the Department of Health and the HSE.
He added that the Minister of State for Mental Health Mary Butler would be meeting with the Traveller and Roma rights NGO Pavee Point in the upcoming weeks.