Racism and ‘toxic shame’ contribute to high rates of despair in Travellers, study finds

New report stresses the need for dedicated, out-of-hours helpline for Travellers in mental distress

Fear of having children removed by Tusla is among the barriers to Travellers seeking support when they feel suicidal.

Stigma within the community about mental health difficulties and distrust in health services are also identified in a report published on Monday as factors underlining the need for a dedicated, out-of-hours helpline for Travellers in mental distress.

According to data gathered by the UCD-led, all-Ireland Traveller Health Study in 2009, Travellers have a suicide rate six times that of the general population, with one in 10 dying by suicide.

Commissioned by the National Traveller Counselling Service and the Exchange House national Traveller service, the report is by Wellbeing Training – an independent research and training organisation focused on mental health.


The report draws on a literature review of international and Irish research on indigenous people’s mental health, as well findings from Traveller focus groups in Cork, Kerry, Cavan and Wicklow in September and October 2022.

It finds fear and “perception” of suicide is high in the community, with one participant commenting: “You are always worrying that someone in your family will take their life.”

Another said: “Once or twice a month, you would hear someone has taken their life.”

Every individual in the consultation knew someone who had died by suicide and they knew more people who had attempted suicide, who talk about suicide and who are grieving loved ones who died by suicide, says the report.

Racism, discrimination and “toxic shame” – particularly among Traveller men – contribute to high rates of despair and “hopelessness” and in turn substance and alcohol misuse. Further factors include poverty and inability to access the labour market, further emasculating Traveller men who feel they have failed their families.

Among quotes from focus groups were: “where can we work? “, “what can young men do?”, and, “how can they provide for their families?”

The focus groups emphasised “pressure on men to be a provider where there are no employment opportunities for Irish Traveller men, ever increasing financial pressures, family/marital breakdown and stress”.

A “recurring theme” was that Travellers “do not reach out for help because they are afraid of Tusla involvement,” the report notes. It says Travellers feel judged and misunderstood by the agency while their “experience of Tusla services within their community and treatment from some social workers” has been negative.

The agency does not, it says, provide Traveller advocacy and as “any involvement of social work services in their family is understood as a threat to their family and of losing the care of their children”.

As a result: “This is a huge motivation to not show any to services”.

While the report notes 16 helplines for people in distress, including Childline, Aware and Women’s Aid, it says none provides culturally-specific support for Travellers.

A spokeswoman for the HSE said the executive was “actively” working with Traveller organisations on the newly-formed Traveller mental health working group which also includes representatives from mental health services, the national office for suicide prevention, the HSE’s engagement and recovery, and social inclusion sections.

“This has the aim of ensuring that the high-level mental health actions from the National Traveller Health Action Plan are aligned with and inform other mental health policies…As part of Budget 2024 funding has been secured to include enhancements to suicide prevention and postvention services through the expansion of suicide bereavement liaison service, and of the Traveller counselling service, which will have national coverage for the first time.”

Tusla was contacted for comment.

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland is Social Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times