Mistrust, lies and stigma for the addicted in Ireland’s travelling community

Donal Corrigan

It is no secret that the Irish Travelling community has little supports in place.

One of the supports on offer for Travellers is a drug supports system, however, this has been showing signs of ineffectiveness as half of a Traveller focus group for drug misuse said that they at some stage tried a home detox for heroin.

The huge drug problem with travellers appears to be met with inadequate support services.

One of the issues for Travellers using drug support systems is trust. Confidentiality is very important to Travellers who are accessing rehabilitation. When this is breached, it has enormous consequences for Travellers and their place in their community. This is due to the massive taboo around drugs for this community and a lot of shame can be cast on Travellers who take drugs. This comes from a lack of understanding behind the cultural reasons, according to the Marie Claire report.

One woman sought out help from support services but lied to her counsellor for the first four months with her. She claims that she did this to test the strength of confidentiality she had with the counsellor. She argued that if anything came back to her friends or family about her, she would be able to deny it as a lie. Once she was happy that none of these lies were coming back to her community, she was only then ready to begin an honest approach to getting herself cured.

There is a disastrous knock-on effect with the taboo and the mistrust of confidentiality. Travellers will want not want to access rehabilitation close to their communities. Instead, they want help that is located further from their sites in order to prevent anything from getting back to their friends and family.

However, Travellers also find themselves without access to transport, as some live in halting sites which may be in remote locations, as well as some Travellers being unable to drive. This leaves many people in this community in a limbo so they don’t seek help at all.

Another pressing issue is that Travellers simply don’t know that the support services are in place. Many Travellers affected by this are unaware that there are support services available for them. This problem can be attributed to a lack of outreach from the government.  According to one report, Travellers feel that drug education is not built for their community, that the system is ‘not based on their values and beliefs’.

Another reason for this lack of knowledge can be put down to the taboo around the subject. If people don’t speak about the problem than they are less likely to speak about the solution. This is particularly worrying as a Pavee Point report found that the most common way Travellers found about support services was by word of mouth. The huge taboo around drugs can act as a barrier to the main way of finding out about this.

The amount of people that are suffering from this problem is difficult to gauge. Figures in many reports on Travellers and drug misuse are can be skewed, due to mistrust in the support system for Travellers. When Travellers bring themselves into the system, there is a common practice not to identify yourself as a traveller by filling in forms that you are from the settled community.

There is a belief that you will receive better care if a support worker thinks you are part of the settled community. As a result, attention in support services can fail to meet the specific needs of their patients because they don’t actually know who they are. Furthermore, policies are falling short of solving the problem because they can’t see their target.

Traveller and Romany advocacy group Pavee Point are not happy with the response from the government.

Only after an 18-year long fight, Traveller representatives are finally allowed onto the board for the national drug strategy.  It has been an anti-climatic experience – for example, the board is supposed to meet once every month, to establish what progress has been made on their goals, which need to be met by 2020. In the last year and a half, they have only met six times.

Very few of these goals have been met with just nine months left out of the three-year time frame.

 Volunteer John Paul of Pavee Point says that there are two solutions that can help this problem. Firstly, more Travellers need to be working within the support services themselves. A major criticism of the support system from Travellers is that it is geared towards majority needs so minorities are left out. If there are more Travellers working in the system itself than there would be more of an understanding towards their acquired needs, he claimed.

Secondly, John Paul stated that more people working in the support services need to be given cultural competency training. This training gives people the opportunity to better understand other cultures thus allowing them to adapt their work to better suit the needs of a certain type of people.  Yet, he comments that there are not enough people accessing this training within the support services.

However, this may seem like a small detail to a solution it could have a profound effect on the problem. According to the Pavee Point pathways report on drug support services, “the most commonly reported benefit of engaging in a service was reported to be ‘having a staff member to talk to’ by two-thirds of all service users.”

Cultural competency training may be the solution to solving the many trust issues that members of the Travelling community hold within support services. In turn, this may be key in repairing the drug support services available to Travellers and finally addressing heavily stigmatised drug issues within the community.

Donal Corrigan

Image Credit: Jamie Johnson