Six times as likely to die by suicide: the Traveller mental health crisis

Kathryn Wheeler
By Kathryn Wheeler,
updated on Mar 8, 2023

Six times as likely to die by suicide: the Traveller mental health crisis

It’s time to take a hard look at the reality faced by many in the community

“I’m from the north-west of England, a little town called Morecambe Bay, not far from the Lake District. My family are Showmen Travellers. My mam, she grew up around the Bolton area and her family all had fairgrounds and travelled around the whole of the UK. My dad, he actually came originally from a circus and fairground background. They met and hit it off – not initially, but they got there. And then they decided to have an amusement arcade, so they settled.”

I’m speaking to Xenna Kaser, a counsellor who is also part of the GRT (Gypsy, Roma, Traveller) community. GRT is an umbrella term for those who belong to minority ethnic groups such as Irish and Scottish Travellers, and Romany people, as well as New Travellers, Showpeople, and Boaters. It’s estimated that there are around 300,000 Travellers in the UK, and those in the GRT community share a distinct, diverse, and rich heritage.

“We all went through school still going to those fairgrounds, the big ones in particular, throughout the year to meet friends and socialise,” Xenna continues. “Neither I nor my two brothers have gone into the field. We’ve all gone on to do different things, but are still very much in touch with our background.”

Xenna’s vocation as a counsellor working with the GRT community is an incredibly valuable one. Alongside the everyday joy that comes with family and community, Travellers are one of the most persecuted and marginalised groups in our society. In fact, it was only in 2021 that ‘Roma’ was included as an ethnic group, and ‘Showman’ as an occupation and ethnicity, in the England and Wales Census. And while there is a severe lack of legal sites for Travellers, in 2022, the controversial Unauthorised Encampments: Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act made residing with a vehicle on land without permission a criminal – rather than a civil – offence, giving police the power to seize vehicles and, consequently, people’s homes and way of life. With all that in mind, it goes without saying that living in this environment can take its toll.


The suicide rate for Travellers is six times the general population

That’s according to a study by All-Ireland Traveller Health, and the figure rises to seven times the general population for men. Another survey found that 82% of the Travellers surveyed had been personally affected by suicide.

“I’ve known people who have taken their own lives, and it’s really devastating,” Xenna says. “I think there are a number of factors behind it. One, is that it’s a relatively closed community and it is very misunderstood – so I think people who are having problems, if they were to go to a doctor or a therapist who hasn’t been briefed on the community and how the community works, they could feel quite misunderstood and, therefore, that leads to a lot of shame.”

Xenna’s insight rings true. In January 2019, the Government published its first-ever cross-government suicide prevention work plan. The new national plan felt like a watershed moment for mental health work, but analysis from the Friends Families and Travellers group (FFT) found that of the 79 local suicide prevention plans, which represent 113 local areas, only five plans mentioned GRT communities, and only two plans identified activities to address suicide inequalities in GRT communities.

“Showmen Travellers, and other Traveller communities, are still brushed under that carpet and, actually, we need to bring it out of its shell and let it be known,” Xenna adds.

Racism under the radar

Despite the fact that Travellers have been part of British society since at least the 1500s, racism, discrimination, harassment, and marginalisation continue. My own Romany family can be traced back to the 1700s, when they first arrived in Hampshire and, similarly to Xenna, coming from a now-settled family, I often bear witness to everything from anti-traveller rhetoric, up to racism and discrimination directed at others – as if it’s ‘us against them’.

“I’ve been in situations where people will say, ‘This p**** did this’, or whatever – I just stand there, completely silent,” Xenna shares. “When I was at school, I probably had more racist comments said to me then. It doesn’t really happen now, because I went in on myself about it, and only really told people about my background when I felt like they hadn’t already made their pre-judgement.”

In findings from the ‘Hate: As Regular As Rain’ pilot study at Buckinghamshire New University, a large proportion of support workers surveyed said that more than 90% of their Traveller clients who had completed or attempted suicide had previously experienced hate incidents. But racism and prejudice against Travellers continue. The chances are, you may have witnessed it yourself – particularly on social media, which the FFT highlighted as an urgent area of concern during National Hate Crime Awareness Week 2020, when it called for better responses from social media companies and stronger support from the police.

Is it ok to say 'Gypsy'?

The word ‘gypsy’ can absolutely be used as a racial slur to belittle, appropriate, or dismiss ethnic communities. However, many Romany groups across Europe use the word to describe themselves with pride, and you will find it’s commonly used by individuals and community-led action, advocacy, and charitable groups here in the UK. Generally, the term ‘traveller’ is most commonly used, but if you’re in any doubt about how to refer to an individual, the best thing to do is follow their lead, or to ask them about it.

Bringing it to the forefront

It’s important to recognise the huge amount of work that the Traveller community is doing to reach those at risk of suicide and poor mental health, many of which are mentioned throughout this article. Xenna plays a key role in this herself; she’s involved with the Showmen’s Mental Health Awareness charity, which offers funding for private counselling via self-referals, as well as working on education and awareness.

In 2019, siblings Mark and Caroline set up One Call Away, a confidential phone line to support those from the community experiencing depression, suicidal thoughts, panic attacks, self-harm, and anxiety. And the Gypsy and Traveller League (GTL) – a new charity set up to tackle mental health – launched in April 2022, kicking off its campaign with a seven-aside football and pool competition. That’s just a couple of elements in what is now a major movement.

But those not in the Traveller community can help, too. Becoming aware of the issue is the first step, the next is action. Whether that be reporting racism, harassment, or discrimination when you see it on social media, challenging friends or family (a simple ‘that’s not OK’ is all it takes), taking time to learn more about Traveller history, and growing your awareness of legislation that may harm the community – if you want it to, change can start now.

Organisations to use, support, and share

. The Traveller Movement (UK-wide)
. Traveller Pride (LGBTQIA+)
. Moving for Change (UK-wide)
. Friends Family and Travellers (UK-wide)
. Roma Support Group (UK-wide)
. Gypsy Traveller League (UK-wide)
. Leeds GATE Suicide Prevention Service (Leeds)
. Irish Community Care (Liverpool/Merseyside/Cheshire/Wigan/Leigh/Halton)
. Traveller Counselling Service (Ireland)
. GATE Herts (Hertfordshire)
. London Gypsies and Travellers (London)
. OneVoice4Travellers (East Anglia)
. York Travellers Trust (Yorkshire)

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