- 11 Oct 22
Singer-songwriter Sharyn Ward contributes to the Hot Press Mental Health Special.
I struggle with anxiety. I’d say a lot of Travellers probably do – it’s been reared into us. Since you were a child, you had to be more cautious. Going into shops, you were watched more. In school you were different. You pronounced your words differently. You acted differently. You dressed differently. Your personality was a bit freer, and wilder – and people didn’t understand it, so they gave us a hard time for it. My anxiety comes from still feeling like, ‘Is it okay to do this?’ Or, ‘Do I fit in here?’ I’m cautious about being fully accepted, still to this day.
My father suffered very badly with mental illness for years. In the end, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia, but he had been undiagnosed for a long time. He had it all – he was a successful businessman. He was gorgeous. And then one day, he just couldn’t cope with it any more. He isolated himself away, and lost all his communication with the world. It was a very sad and lonely life. And it was a waste – because he was super talented.
In the Traveller community, particularly in my father’s generation, you were completely isolated if you had a mental health problem. You couldn’t turn to your own community, and you couldn’t turn to the outside community. So my father had no support.
After I had my small child Paddy, who’s three now, I suffered really badly with depression for a few months. My motto at the time was, ‘Keep it to yourself.’ Because even in this generation, I was afraid that people would think, ‘Ah, she hasn’t really got it all together, has she?’ There’s that fear when speaking about mental health, and I think my father dealt with that a lot.
I didn’t know how to grieve my father when he died, and I think my grief triggered this anxiety. I was having a full-blown panic attack one night, and I went outside for fresh air. The sky was really calm. I was just like, ‘I don’t know what’s going on. My father’s after dying. Everybody’s dying. All those people who died fought for years, but things aren’t getting better for Travellers.’ I was thinking, ‘Where have you all gone? Is heaven a better place?’ And my song, ‘Where Do All The Travelling People Go?’, just came to me.
I’m not an activist. But I can do my own activism through my music. I can express how people are feeling.
Like I say in the song, Travellers “were destroyed one by one.” It was when they came out with the Report of the Commission on Itinerancy in the ‘60s, set up by Charlie Haughey. They put Travellers off the road, moved them into houses, stopped their every way of living. We were broken down, bit by bit.
My father didn’t die by suicide, he died from other problems. But we have very high suicide rates. Traveller women’s suicide rate is six times higher than non-Traveller women, and the suicide rate for Traveller men is seven times higher than non-Traveller men. That’s not giving our young community hope for the future. Over 50% of our community here is under 25 years of age.
So there needs to be something done about mental health in the Traveller community. There’s still not enough support. They say, ‘Ah, we’ll just send you to counselling.’ But you can’t really send a Traveller woman into a non-Traveller, who doesn’t truly understand her culture, and way of life, and expect them to fix her. They need to open doors for Traveller women and men to get trained in this.
Within our own community, we need to be supporting each other too, when it comes to our mental health. But there are more Travellers talking about mental health now. Years ago, it would have been made fun of. Now people are sympathetic, and they’ll check in on each other. We’re so supportive of each other, because we know the struggles we all went through.
So never give up. Keep going. Do not accept not being accepted. Stand up for your place on this earth.
‘Where Do All The Travelling People Go?’ is out now, with thanks to John Flynn and Dick Farrelly at Missing Link Productions, Shankill. Sharyn Ward is currently an artist-in-residence at Axis Ballymun.
Read the full Hot Press Mental Health Special now in the current issue of Hot Press: