December 11, 2008

Wednesday, December 10, 2008 KITTY HOLLAND

TRAVELLERS ARE three times as likely to die by suicide as members of the general population, the first study of its kind has found.

The seven-year study, Suicide Among the Irish Traveller Community 2000-2006 , was part-funded by the Department of Justice and published in Co Wicklow yesterday.

Conducted between 2000 and 2006, it found that the rate of suicide among the Traveller community rose to five times the national average in 2005.

Mary-Rose Walker, social worker with the Traveller community for Wicklow County Council and author of the report, found that the average rate of suicide among Travellers was 3.7 per 10,000 compared to 1.2 per 10,000 in the national population.

"The annual rate peaked at 5.4 per 10,000 in 2005, which was more than five times the national rate. While there has been a gradual reduction in the national rate, among Travellers this has not been the case."

The actual number of Traveller suicides in the seven years was 74. Suicide is even more starkly a male issue in the Traveller population than in the settled population, she finds. While it is four times as prevalent among settled men as settled women, among Travellers, the male rate is over nine times the female rate.

Ms Walker said the community clearly had a "serious problem" with suicide and she said a significant factor was a sense of the progressive loss of Traveller identity and culture while at the same time not being accepted by the settled community.

"Over the years there have been clear improvements in accommodation and education. Young Travellers have a lot more in common now with their settled peers than would have been the case in the past. Yet they know the settled community looks down on them.

"They are in a situation where a lot of their own traditions, such as horse-keeping and travelling, have been lost yet they are not accepted. They are in a no man's land. Most of them cope and adapt but a number of them are vulnerable. If life seems to have little purpose, it takes little to convince them to end it."

Jim O'Brien, a Traveller and manager of the Bray Traveller Community Development Project, said he found the figures
"alarming", but said he hoped that the report would create and awareness of the issues for Travellers that factored in the high suicide rates.

"The accommodation, health, education and employment figures for Travellers tell their own story." There was a sense of hopelessness among many Travellers about the hostility that they experience to their culture, he said.

"From a Traveller point of view, we have to be honest with ourselves, that there is a problem with suicide, to openly talk about it and work with people to counter the problems and connect with services."

Ms Walker said that, as well as tackling poverty and disadvantage among Travellers, it would be necessary to seek ways to address the community's "collective sadness" in the face of rapid social change. The community needed support to integrate "themselves within their own history".