Troubles linked to mental illness

Wed, May 9, 2012, 01:00

People affected by traumatic episodes in the Northern Ireland Troubles are showing signs of mental illness decades after the events, a new study has revealed.

Researchers met people aged 45 and over whose lives were touched by the conflict and found 50 per cent displayed symptoms of ill health many years after their initial trauma.

The study was carried out by the same researchers who uncovered some of the world’s highest levels of post-traumatic stress disorder in Northern Ireland.

The report was compiled by University of Ulster psychologists and trauma treatment experts based in Omagh where 29 people were killed in the 1998 bomb attack by dissident republicans opposed to the peace process.

The study, entitled Ageing, Health and Conflict, said: “Along with the experience of specialist trauma services, the findings show that acute manifestation of symptoms for many mental health conditions often only appears many years later.”

Professor Brendan Bunting, Professor of Psychology at the university’s Magee campus in Derry, said: “These results indicate the potentially damaging role of traumatic events in the later development of different mental health conditions.

“Not all traumatic events are equal, some appear more devastating than others, and conflict related trauma appears to be among the more serious events.”

It is the latest in a series of studies undertaken by a partnership of the Bamford Centre for Mental Health and Wellbeing, based at the Magee campus, and the Northern Ireland Centre for Trauma & Transformation Trust.

The research shows that an individual who has experienced a conflict-related traumatic event is three times more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression and or alcohol abuse than someone who has not had a trauma.

Nearly 50 per cent of those who had experienced a conflict-related trauma had shown evidence of at least one treatable mental health condition by the time of the research interview.

Professor Bob Stout of the Centre for Ageing Research and Development in Ireland praised the report’s focus on the needs of older people, saying it laid the groundwork for improved services.

The report, which was undertaken with funding from The Atlantic Philanthropies, was launched in Belfast.

As well as a strong association between traumatic events and mental health, the study found that specifically conflict-related traumatic events had a stronger effect across most mental health conditions.

People who experienced traumatic events, either conflict or non-conflict related, were more likely to have a range of chronic physical health problems such as arthritis/rheumatism, respiratory conditions and ulcers.

Where individuals had experienced traumatic events, many of them had gone to see health professionals in relation to emotional problems (67 per cent).

Research undertaken earlier in the series of studies hinted at a high level of experience of Troubles-related trauma among the older population, with associated impact on mental and physical health.

The latest report drew on results of a Northern Ireland -wide survey of more than 4,000 people, followed by the researchers’ interviews with a sample 225 who had experienced conflict-related traumatic events.