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.
We’ve been in for a few days, and I’m really enjoying our time! I’ve met many people who have been extremely hospitable and are more than happy to inform us about the Northern Irish history, culture, and its struggles with suicide and trauma. There are reminders on every block of the hostility that plagued the region, but the welcoming and friendly people cause you to instantly forget about the area’s violent past.
I have participated in two interviews so far with individuals who have lost family members to suicide. Both of these people have touched my heart with their powerful stories, and it has been gratifying to apply some of the skills I’ve learned in school during these interviews. We’ve also attended a few conferences, and the similarities between the mental health fields in the U.S. and the U.K. have become striking. I feel fortunate to have come on this trip because I am learning so much! I can’t wait to learn even more in the next few days!
At this conference we were given the opportunity to listen to the experiences of mental health consumers and individuals affected by suicide. We heard stories about how the many ways the mental health system here as let people down when they are desperate for help. The speakers also went over a survey done by the Belfast Mental Health Rights Group. The survey pointed to the way that the A & E addresses mental health concerns and include patient’s in their treatment plans. Their report had a simple message, mental health consumers in Northern Ireland are being let down by healthcare professionals.
Toward the end of the conference, during the Q & A session, I asked the panel how we as future mental health professionals can support communities in their advocacies. Kathy, a mental health consumer, states very simply that all we need to do is listen. We ned to listen and understand that each person’s experience is unique and valid. If we do this simple task, we will be able to support individuals and communities in making effective changes in their mental health and healing.
Within the conferences that we have attended in the past two days, I am coming to a conclusion that the people of Northern Ireland desperately want change. As outsiders, it is very easy to assume that there is too much hatred within the island, for people to even dream of a change for at least three or four generations. However, I have met, and heard people these past two days, who are fighting with all that they’ve got, to make sure that their children can live safe and happy, right now. I marvel at their courage, determination, and faith for a means to move past the sectarian violence. It is an awesome and powerful thing to see people, with their own stories of trauma, asking others to follow them, but with the intention of transforming their pain and distrust into one of peace and acceptance. One speaker, said something that really struck a cord for me;
“Until we stop pointing fingers, we can never hope to move past this. We must instead, recognize each other where they are, and move forward. And we must not wait, any longer, to do this.”
That was a rough quotation, but it still captures what she said.
I was not sure what to expect when I arrived in Ireland. We have been very busy but I have learned so much in the three days that I have been in Belfast. I never imagined the experiences that were set up for us. I am excited to learn all I can about suicide intervention and how it can be applied to people in Belfast. There is so much to do that our day is never dull. Although I am tired I could not be more grateful for the opportunities that I have been given. Today I spoke with a person who experienced suicide in some form in her life. I came into this trip not having any experience or any idea what to expect. I was able to be a part of a powerful conversation and learn more than I ever thought I could learn. I am looking forward to what the rest of my time here has in store for me.
I began my trip to Ireland in Dublin where it appeared everyone was a tourist. As I made my way to Belfast, tourism was obviously rare form. It seems surreal that after four months of intense preparation I am already at the end of day 3 of my trip. Everyone said the time will fly while we are here and I now know that was an understatement. As the days fly by I am immersed into a wealth of knowledge from so many different people and experiences. The things I have learned in three short days are more than I could ever gain from a classroom and I am grateful for this experience. Not only am I given the opportunity to meet people and learn from them, I am able to grow as a clinician and learn from myself. I have been inspired by so many people in such a short time; I cannot even begin to imagine what other experiences are to come.
Courage can be seen in many ways. Some people think true courage is not when you feel no fear, but when you push forward despite your fear. Being here is for me a reminder of the second. With all the conflict over the many years the people of Northern Ireland seem to me some of the most courageous I have met. Despite The Troubles they remain open that caring. Underneath there are definitely scars, but in all my interactions so far there is a generosity of spirit that for me personifies courage. It is inspiring and amazing to experience, adding another dimension to an already incredible trip so far.
“It was the best of days, it was the worst of days…”
I think that part of this experience in the past few days has truly reflected the nature of this old city. As a tourist, one could naively meander through the streets, see different flags, and think nothing of it. However, the past few days have been eye-opening in regards to how the people of Belfast truly live. Just yesterday, I observed how one of our new friends was completely uncomfortable walking through the neighborhood that our hostel resided in. This reaction is actually very common. I can only touch the emotional reaction, living in a rough part of Chicago, that Belfast citizens feel when walking down the street. The sectarianism is strong, and the people are still aware of it. Now, I do not want to paint the people as hateful, difficult, or rude. They are just the opposite, they actually love, and give graciously to us. I haven’t felt more welcomed into a country in my life (I’ve traveled a lot). But the problems that Belfastians have within their own communities are mind-blowing.
There are walls here that used to divide communities, in order to keep certain people within safe, and of course to keep other unwanted people out. These walls have been dubbed “peace walls,” but the connotation of peace is not readily available to the people dwelling near them. Apparently, some people have accepted the walls as a means of protection, and do not want them removed. Whereas just as many others, see the walls as a reminder of the Troubles that racked this city for hundreds of years.
I’m nervous but excited to see how people cope with this much animosity amongst them, especially when living at a time of peace. In America, we think of peace as something that is easy to comprehend and see on the streets. What we fail to note, is that even in our own culture, we are at peace, but we carry our grudges and our hostilities with us, over time, because our violence was limited. I’m not trying to go too far into our own history, but merely paint a picture of what it is like over here.
How does an individual, or a society for that matter, handle transference from outright sectarian war, to peace, and living amongst the same people they were raised to hate?
We’re finally here, after four months of preparation. It’s a little surreal. And it also feels exactly right. Yesterday we went through a suicide prevention training and then got to meet with some people whose lives have been effected by suicide. The beauty of Northern Ireland and the seemingly up-beat nature of the people do not match with the gravity of the topics. It’s a strange experience so far, but I expect we will learn a lot from it, even if I don’t know exactly what that is yet.