Gypsies and travellers have long been a margnalised group. I suppose that's one of the pitfalls of intentionally side-lining yourself from mainstream society for hundreds of years – or the main pitfall, really – but recent changes to legislation surrounding traveller communities (meaning they no longer have government-approved places to settle) has made them even more segregated. A report showed that travellers and gypsies are in significantly poorer health than other UK-resident, English-speaking ethnic minorities. They're also more likely to suffer from miscarriages, still births, the death of young babies and older children because their access to healthcare – as a group with no fixed address – is limited. Which is obviously all extremely depressing.
Another related bum-out is the fact that, within the last five years, the rates of drug abuse in both communities have risen exponentially and suicide rates have grown to be six times higher than those of the general UK population. Travellers and gypsies are already both pretty closed communities, and I imagine they're not going to become any less reluctant to talk when it comes to their family members killing themselves, so there's not a huge amount of information out there as to why this has suddenly started happening. To get a bit of insight, I called Shauna Leven from charity René Cassin.
Ex-residents of Dale Farm.
VICE: Hi Shauna. Can you unwrap this statistic that suicide rates in the traveller and gypsy communities are six times higher than the general UK population?
Shauna Leven: First, I should just say that these statistics apply to Romani gypsies and Scottish, Welsh and Irish travellers, not so much the Roma people who've started coming here more recently. However, they too experience the same kind of discrimination in Europe. Unfortunately, it's hard to delve into specifics, because the NHS doesn't collect statistics on health issues for this ethnic groups as it does for other ethnic groups.
Why aren't they collecting statistics?
It's just not part of the NHS framework. Gypsies and travellers are recognised as an ethnic minority, but the discrepancy between, say, the life expectancy of travellers and the general population is mostly ignored. If you were seeing the same kind of thing in the Muslim community, for example, it's much more likely there'd be statistics taken. Our first recommendation towards solving the problem is to go out and do more research about the topic, because that's the first issue here.
The first issue in what's causing it?
Yes – well, higher suicide rates are really the result of a convergence of factors. Racism against gypsies and travellers is often referred to as the last acceptable type of racism here in the UK. Educated, socially conscious people often don’t hesitate before using the words "gyp" or "pikey" or other things like that, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg, really. It shows the level of social exclusion that travellers automatically fall under for being travellers.
Why's it taken the sudden spike it has, though?
Gypsies and travellers are nomadic people and, up until a few decades ago, the government provided them with sites to move their caravans around to. In the past decade, the government shifted responsibility of maintaining these sites to local councils – and local councils are much more susceptible to pressures from residents, as they should be. The result is that the traveller and gypsy communities no longer have access to secure accommodation with proper facilities and can't do things like sign up to the NHS as permanent residents, meaning they don't have access to things like breast cancer and mental health screenings.
So they're being forced into permanent transition, rather being able to settle down places before they decide to move on themselves.
Yeah, exactly. It’s not within their control, and I think that’s a key thing in understanding the anxiety and depression in the community. I mean, I’m not a mental health professional, but anyone knows that the constant stress of being evicted, or having your kids pulled out of school, or being actively discriminated against is only going to eventually cause anxiety. Although, it's important to understand that there isn't one cause – it’s a whole system of discrimination and exclusion that has led to this point.
So you think it's all external causes? Is there anything going on internally that might have prompted the higher suicide rates? I don't know – more people coming out as gay or wanting to live a more mainstream lifestyle and being shunned by their community, or something?
I think – for the most part – it’s external. The gypsy and traveller community is a very community-focused culture, so that’s one of the reasons that not having secure accommodation is so traumatic for these people, because it means that families are separated. To my knowledge, there haven't been any studies on gypsy or traveller people coming out as gay affecting suicide rates, but I think they've started to look at the implications of marriages breaking up on self-harm and suicide. That's a very recent phenomenon in the community – marriage breakup is still quite new, so that may explain why some deal with it the way they do.
Roseanna Doherty, star of Channel 4's gypsy documentary series, who recently attempted suicide.
You think the fact that couples in the communities are starting to get divorced might have something to do with it?
That could be another factor, yes. But I personally think the most important factors are that they are socially excluded, have trouble finding employment, are discriminated against by society and the mainstream media, and often have their family situations forced into insecurity. My organisation approaches the gypsy and traveller campaign from the Jewish historical experience, because the past of both communities is quite similar – gypsies were alongside Jews in concentration camps. But since then, Jews have been upwardly mobile and travellers have been downwardly mobile. There hasn't even been any widespread acknowledgment that gypsies were killed during the holocaust.
Yeah, that's true. It has been swept under the carpet a bit.
Exactly. There’s an interesting website called Jewify.org, where you put in a link to a media story about gypsies or travellers and it replaces the word gypsy, traveller or Roma with the word Jew. And when you have a look at how these articles sound, when you replace the word – and you could do the same for something like "black person" or "Muslim" – I find it quite confronting. So it makes you realise just how socially unacceptable it is to use these words the way we do.
Protesters campaigning for justice for Roma gypsies.
Yeah. And onto the rise in substance abuse – do you know any more about that? Because again, it doesn't seem like anyone's doing much research into it.
No, you’re right. I don’t, unfortunately, have any statistics and I don’t know whether there really are any statistics about it. I've heard anecdotally about why it may be happening, and it's for the same reason as the suicide rates: stress stemming from all those different factors. Also the fact that many can't work, so start using drugs recreationally to pass the time, then end up becoming addicted.
What steps do you think could be taken to start to tackle this stuff?
It all goes back to this point of "acceptable discrimination" against gypsies and travellers in the UK and throughout Europe. It’s still seen as OK to say and do discriminatory things, and most people don’t even realise that our planning laws are indirectly discriminatory; that the way kids register for school is indirectly discriminatory, because these people are forced out of having a permanent address, then told they need one to benefit from what the state offers. In a survey I saw, on a scale of one to ten – where ten is extremely comfortable and one is extremely uncomfortable – having a disabled person as a neighbour got a nine, having a homosexual person as a neighbour got an eight and having a Roma as a neighbour got a six. So yeah, you don’t really realise, but the discrimination is quite shocking and massively ingrained.
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jamie_clifton
More on the world of gypsies and travellers: