Our trip to Belfast has been amazing. I was astonished by the resiliency of the people. Despite experiencing years of violence, trauma, and pain, the communities of Belfast have held on tightly to their sense of hope. Communities have taken a taken a stance towards peace and reconciliation. The pain and trauma of the past is still mourned, however communities are moving forward. Although there are reminders of the Troubles everywhere you look, all the people we’ve met are optimistic that things are changing for the better. I feel honored to have been able to hear the stories of those involved in the Troubles. It was the voice of these people that broke the silence that perpetuates oppression and violence. I will always remember the experiences that I’ve had here in Belfast. Most importantly, I will take what I’ve learned and apply it to my personal and professional life here in the United States. As Phillip of PIPs constantly preached to us, we should not be content with sitting in our offices with our certificates hanging above us. We have a responsibility to help those out in the community, and with their trust they will support us in making the future brighter.
Today our group travelled to the infamous H-Block prison that housed the blanket men protestors. Among the blanket men was Bobby Sands, the leader of the 1981 hunger strikes that protested against the removal of the special category status. His dedication to the cause of the Republican movement was a catalyst for an examination of human rights during the Troubles. It was an amazing experience walking through the many layers of gates. The area was void of all people. It was easy to visualize the faces of the prisoners as we walked by the cells. I cannot imagine the resilience it would have taken to survive the years of imprisonment while your human rights were violated. The blanket men also were a part of the dirty protests, in which they refused to use the bathrooms, instead they would use their cells. We could still see the stains that soaked into the stone of the prison walls. I think the most powerful moment was walking into the hospital building where Bobby Sands had died during the hunger strike. He was so dedicated to his cause that he was willing to give his life in a gruesome, slow manner. During the tour, we also heard about the suicide numbers of the guards that watched the prisoners. It was a stark reminder that the conflict, and especially those involved in the H-Block prison, did not escape with some kind of wound. Even the prisoners were not able to escape the psychological trauma.
On Saturday, our group visited Derry/Londonderry, the second biggest city in the North of Ireland. Upon arriving, the first thing we noticed was the large stone wall which separated the Protestant “Cliffside” and the Catholic “Bogside.” Large cannons were still positioned alongside the wall pointed down upon the buildings below. As we walked along the wall, we noticed large fences that still protect the wall and churches from attack. Looking down below at the Bogside, we could see the murals painted upon the sides of the buildings depicting the struggle of the community. Although the city was beautiful, the murals were an unsettling reminder of the violent history and struggle the people have endured. The monuments to political prisoners and the victims of Bloody Sunday were particularly powerful. On January 30, 1972, 13 unarmed civilans were killed during a civil rights march on the Bogside area. It was a surreal experience being in the same area of this tragedy and passing along corners once controlled by the IRA. Although the peace process has moved along since then, there are still reminders that there is still progress to be made.
In the past few days we have attended various conferences focusing on suicide prevention and trauma in Belfast. Individuals who have experienced trauma, loss, and suicide have shared their influential stories. As a training mental healthcare professional, it was frustrating to listen to how the healthcare system and government in Northern Ireland appears to be failing the people in providing adequate care. One statistics presented by PIPs reveals that more deaths can be attributed to suicide in Northern Ireland when compared to car related deaths. However, the government allocates significantly more money to road safety than suicide prevention. It has made me greater appreciate organizations like PIPs and other nonprofit community that have their feet firmly grounded in their communities. The conferences also provided a strong argument that resiliency and post-traumatic growth is dependent on an individual’s connection to others. Although psychology often focuses solely on the individual, we cannot forgot that individuals are embedded in many systems.
Our trip to Northern Ireland has been an eye-opening experience. The city of Belfast is beautiful and full of culture. However, there are constant reminders of the city’s tragic history of trauma, violence, and oppression. Although there is beauty in the murals that drape the sides of the brick buildings, they serve as a reminder of the sectarian history of Belfast. The walls still serve to separate the different neighborhoods. The wounds still seem very deep; however the resilience of the people is inspiring. Although the peace process has been slow, the people have held on tightly to their sense of hope.
On our trip, we have visited the homes of individuals who have been affected by suicide. The experience has been heart-wrenching. These individuals have demonstrated tremendous courage in sharing their stories. It is an experience that I will always cherish.