Troubles still impacting on mental health

One of the images to emerge from Bloody Sunday.
One of the images to emerge from Bloody Sunday.

The legacy of conflict continues to have a huge impact on Derry’s mental health according to a leading mental health worker in the city.

Pat McCauley who works at Wave Trauma Centre says that despite almost two decades having past since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, the organisation’s office on Bishop Street is busier than ever as it struggles to deal with calls from those suffering from post traumatic stress and depression as a direct or indirect result of the Troubles.

A study just published by the University of Ulster showed that the affects of conflict are “intergenerational” and have had a trickle down effect, with the impact still being felt among young people today.

Pat McCauley says that Wave Trauma centre is now even busier than at the height of the recession, when the “secondary trauma” of the financial crisis caused people to seek help for hurts that they had buried and tried to forget, often through the use of prescription medication, alcohol or illegal drugs.

“What we often see is that a present crisis in someone’s live will cause them to seek help for things that have happened to them in the past,” he explained.

“The way I would describe it is as a volcano with a boulder on the top. Something will happen in someone’s life that will trigger memories and emotions from the troubles. We often find that one thing will feed into the other as the first trauma from the conflict will leave them vulnerable to secondary problems such as depression, addiction or becoming involved in bad or abusive relationships.

What we often see is that a present crisis in someone’s live will cause them to seek help for things that have happened to them in the past-Pat McCauley

“There is a wider assumption that because we have moved beyond conflict that people are not affected by it any more but even in the last few weeks we are receiving more referrals than ever as people struggle to come to terms with the past.

“We see people with post traumatic stress and depression which are directly related to what has happened to them in the conflict.

“For example someone will be referred to us after a marriage breakdown or some other family crisis and it’ll emerge that something happened to them or a close relative during the troubles. What we often find is that a first traumatic experience has left them vulnerable and so they come in experiencing a double trauma and we need to try and unwind all of that.

“Also, its actually because people started to see what it was like to live in normal society that they first started to look for help.

“I was born in the late 60s and conflict was all I knew and so that was normal to me. Soldiers on the streets and people getting killed; that was an every day thing. After the ceasefire it began to sink in that those things weren’t normal and that they didn’t happen everywhere and that caused things to unravel for some people.

“Then in 2008 when the recession hit we saw that hardship triggered something in a lot of our clients and at that time the demand for our counselling services was huge. But in the last few years that has not diminished and if anything the demand at Wave is higher than ever.”

Pat McCauley continued: “There was maybe a culture of getting a prescription from the doctor instead of dealing with an issue and maybe using alcohol to cope as well. Addiction issues or dealing with depression can then spread to the whole family and in that was everyone is affected. A lot of research has been done on transgenerational trauma particularly on the children of Holocaust survivors who, while they didn’t suffer the trauma directly, where nontheless impacted on by their parents’ experiences. I think we would all like to say that we have moved on but that are many people still struggling to come to terms with what happened to them in the 1970s and 1980s and there is no sign of our workload slowing down.”

Throughout the conflict over 3,600 people were killed and thousands more injured.

As many as 50,000 people were physically maimed or injured, with countless others psychologically damaged by the conflict, a legacy that continues to shape the post-1998 period. Various organisations and individuals have produced lists of those who have been killed as a result of ‘the Troubles’ in Northern Ireland.

According to official British statistics, in the six counties between 1969 and 1998 there were some 35669 shooting incidents alone.