Ireland underestimating ‘tsunmai of mental health issues’ from pandemic - Mike Ryan

Seminar told Travellers were disproportionately affected during the pandemic

Dr Mike Ryan, addressing an event hosted by the Galway Traveller Movement (GTM), expressed “shock” at the suicide rate among the Traveller community - at six times that of the general population, saying he had not known it was so high.

Dr Mike Ryan, addressing an event hosted by the Galway Traveller Movement (GTM), expressed “shock” at the suicide rate among the Traveller community - at six times that of the general population, saying he had not known it was so high.

 

Ireland, and other countries, are “underestimating” a “tsunami of mental health issues that are emerging” as the pandemic continues, the executive director of the World Health Organisation’s emergency programme has warned.

Dr Mike Ryan, addressing an event hosted by the Galway Traveller Movement (GTM), expressed “shock” at the suicide rate among the Traveller community - at six times that of the general population, saying he had not known it was so high.

“I wasn’t aware of that, that’s a really difficult number to imagine and a terrible burden for a community to bear…There must be constant fear for everyone around you…This pandemic has amplified what was already an issue,” he said.

“There is no question in my mind that this pandemic has caused its own wounds but it has also whipped away bandages from some very old wounds in our society and we are paying a heavy price for the lack of inclusion and the marginalisation of people.”

The webinar, titled Build Homes, Build Health, Build Hope, heard Travellers had been disproportionately affected during the pandemic with many in overcrowded, unsanitary housing with limited access to healthcare. Many Traveller children had no access to online-learning during school closures.

The webinar heard there had been over 1,000 cases of Covid among Travellers in Galway since the start of the pandemic, with the majority of these in the ‘third wave’ between December last year and mid-April.

“If we had known what was ahead of us before then we would have been completely horrified,” said Dr Aileen Kitching, a public health consultant.

“What we saw in the third wave was increased transmissibility of the alpha variant, the UK variant...We saw significant and rapid spread through large extended Traveller family networks especially where there were substandard living conditions or over crowded housing.

“We saw a huge and disproportionate burden of infections and hospitalisations among the community. There were some weeks in January and February where there was more than one third of the cases in ICU in Galway were made up of members of the Travelling community.”

Of the over 1,000 cases among Travellers in Galway since the start of the pandemic, 942 had occurred between November 2020 and mid-April 2021.

Dr Ryan said marginalised communities faced “social and psychological barriers, acceptance barriers” to healthcare. “Their trust in the system is not fully there.”

Describing anti-Traveller racism as a “poison in society” and “unacceptable” he added he did not believe most people were intentionally racist.

“But…there are deep biases in the way systems work….The systems are driven by racist bias, ethnic bias, class bias. That then becomes very insidious and it’s very hard to change because no one sees themselves as a racist.”

Systemic racism, he said, was a “collective problem” for society “where people are marginalised, excluded and are suffering mentally form that, physically from that.

“There are people who have lived outside our system, on the margins of our system for decades and generations and continue to do that. If you call that institutional racism then that is what it is but it will only change if everybody recognises that and recognises they have a responsibility and a part in the solution, and it’s not someone else’s job and it’s not just the Government’s job.. it’s everybody’s job.”

He called for “a much more fundamental investment in mental health” and “for those people in danger, at risk of self-harm, we must have better urgent services to save lives”.

He was surprised, he said, the HSE was not collecting desegregated data on health outcomes for Travellers. “What gets measured gets done. If we don’t measure things according to the groups then we are never going to have the data to make the changes and actually identify the extent of the problem and then chart improvements.

“If we don’t [collect desegregated data] we are in the dark…I would be very surprised if Ireland was not collecting desegregated health data at the level of communities…If they are not they should be,” said Dr Ryan.