The suicide crisis in Gypsy and Traveller communities

I work for a grassroots community members’ organisation called Leeds GATE. We work to improve the quality of life for Gypsies and Travellers across West Yorkshire. We have been working Synergi over the last few years on transformational approaches to challenge ethnic inequalities in mental health in Leeds as part of the Creative Spaces ecosystem.

I want to take you back to September 10th 2020. It was World Suicide Prevention Day, which also saw the launch of our ground-breaking report, Don’t Be Beat, which shines a light on the suicide crisis impacting the UK’s Gypsy and Traveller communities.

Our work reveals that 60% of people accessing our advocacy service under the theme of mental health disclosed that they had, at some point in their mental health journey, made plans to end their life. We also gathered community intelligence, finding a new case of completed suicide every two months – that’s six suicides per year affecting a population of 7000 across West Yorkshire.

This echoes the findings from the All-Ireland Traveller Health Study which found that the Traveller suicide rate is six times higher when compared to the general population, and accounts for approximately 11% of all Traveller deaths.

The report goes on to look at the efficacy and outcomes of community-led interventions of advocacy and Safetalk training, showing them to be both successful, effective and inexpensive. It also highlights areas of policy and practice within our wider health care systems that desperately need to change – these are reflective of the deeply held views of wider society that act to marginalise, ignore or vilify Gypsy and Traveller people.

Only four in 10 parents in the UK would be happy with their child having a playdate at the home of a Gypsy/Traveller (YouGov 2017). So is it any wonder that services are hard to access for Gypsies and Travellers considering how prevalent racism and marginalisation towards them is?

On launch day I was invited to speak on BBC Radio Leeds to highlight this mental health crisis and the impact it is having on Travelling communities. I spoke alongside other organisations highlighting the impact of suicide on LGBT+ communities and I could not have been prouder of the work of our amazing organisation, Leeds GATE, in delivering this project.

That pride was mixed with a deep sadness for the desperation of those feeling their pain, often without support, often failed and for the lives of their families and loved ones. I also felt hopeful that on our local radio show, presented by a young black man who is full of compassion and integrity, we were coming together in our city to say that we saw and heard that pain, and that we were committed to doing something to make a change.

We spoke about being there for family and friends, having open conversations about mental health, challenging stereotypes and being kind. It honestly felt, in that moment, like change was tangible. You could hear what that world was and could be like in our voices.

Months on, when I look at our report now, which centres the voices and experiences of West Yorkshire’s Gypsies and Travellers, I feel angry. Angry that a call to kindness and openness from Gypsies and Travellers has been repeatedly ignored. Angry that this stuff has to be said again and again. Angry that only five out of 79 local suicide prevention plans in England mention Gypsy and Traveller communities at all, even though members of Gypsy and Traveller communities are six-seven times more likely than the general population to die by suicide.

The report’s recommendations, which are all authored by our members, are asking for basic things. People want dignity. They don’t want someone to roll their eyes when they see them approaching. They want to feel listened to. They want someone to enter their trailer with confidence, not looking terrified or refusing to come out and see them. I’m angry that this report has to be ground-breaking.

I recognise Don’t Be Beat as a necessary report, one that is excellent which we worked extremely hard on. If you don’t know about the crisis of suicide in Gypsy and Traveller communities, then it is a must read. There are specific recommendations for services, policymakers, for national government and for communities.

The communities we work with led the report process and contributed so much of their time, energy and passion to make a better world. But they shouldn’t be solely responsible for making that world materialise.

The complex and interlocking factors that lead to this crisis are those familiar markers of systemic racism and structural exclusion: the lack of access to services, poverty, homelessness, exclusion from schools, fear, bereavement, losing children and incarceration.

Gypsies and Travellers didn’t create the systems that enable these outcomes, nor can they – or should they – be solely responsible for dismantling them. We all must play our part. What will you do?

Download the Don’t Be Beat report here

Watch a short film on the report.


About the Author

Ellie Rogers is Deputy CEO of Leeds GATE, a community members organisation for Gypsies and Travellers in West Yorkshire. Leeds GATE work to improve quality of life for Gypsies and Travellers – working on homes, health, education and inclusion. Ellie has a background in community development work and is passionate about mental health, having grown up in a family affected by many challenges around this. She is from Hull where she learnt the value of solidarity, care and kindness from a church community. Her Mum is her main inspiration in life.