Trauma from Troubles evident in higher rates of mental health problems among young people in Northern Ireland

Leading psychiatrist says `Northern Ireland has one of the highest rates of anti-depressants [usage] in the world’

The trans-generational impact of the Troubles is evident in higher rates of mental health problems in young people in Northern Ireland, a leading psychiatrist has said.

Dr Ciaran Mulholland, consultant psychiatrist with the Northern Health and Social Care Trust, said a 2020 study showed one in 20 young people in Northern Ireland had a stress-related mental health disorder.

“If a young person’s family has been impacted by the Troubles, they are more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder or engage in self-harming behaviour,” Dr Mulholland told a conference in Dublin on Tuesday.

“Many older people are still living with clinically significant PTSD and not being treated for it,” Dr Mulholland added. Since 2015, he has been the clinical director of the Regional Trauma Network, which was established to address the mental health consequences of the Troubles. The network co-ordinates services across the statutory sector and 48 community and voluntary sector providers.


According to Dr Mulholland, the trauma hasn’t ended. “There are deaths and punishment attacks every year and new survivors and victims every week. Northern Ireland has one of the highest rates of anti-depressants [usage] in the world,” he said.

The 2020 Youth Wellbeing Prevalence Survey “found that 1.5 per cent of young people have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and 3.4 per cent have complex post-traumatic stress disorder”, Dr Mulholland said. He acknowledged that emotional, physical and/or sexual abuse as well as the experience of the Troubles accounted for this figure.

The same survey, which looked at young people across all communities in urban and rural parts of Northern Ireland, found that one in four said the Troubles impacted their families.

Twenty-three per cent of young people and 43 per cent of adults also said that paramilitaries in Northern Ireland continued to create fear and intimidation almost 25 years after the Belfast Agreement was signed.

Dr Mulholland, who was speaking at a panel discussion on the impact of conflict on civilians and combatants as part of Creative Brain Week at Trinity College Dublin, said studies had also shown the long-term impact of the Troubles on those who lived through the violence of the 1970s and 1980s.

About 3,800 people have applied for compensation from the Troubles Permanent Disablement Payment Scheme since it was set up in 2021. “Most of these payments are for psychological reasons. It’s very important to recognise people’s experiences and acknowledge the hurt and suffering they have endured,” Dr Mulholland told The Irish Times.

Speaking personally, Dr Mulholland said while he was an optimist, he believed the possibility of conflict remained until “there is a shared culture in Northern Ireland”.

He said: “Not enough people are alert to the risks of violence. Young people in Northern Ireland have the same international culture but they don’t share the same local culture and sports.”

Dr Mulholland is the lead author of a soon-to-be-published academic paper on the impact of family experience of paramilitarism on the mental health of young people.

Sylvia Thompson

Sylvia Thompson

Sylvia Thompson, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health, heritage and the environment