In this guest blog, Claire Barry, director of mental health charity Mind Yourself, explores the mental health issues that Irish people can experience when they migrate to England.
Britain, along with America, has long been the traditional destination for Irish people seeking a new life. Irish immigration to the UK peaked in the late 1950s and again in the 1980s but since the economic crash in 2008, we are witnessing a new wave of Irish emigrants to these shores. It’s worth remembering that even before the recession the Irish represented the third largest minority ethnic group in London.
There have been many studies into the patterns of Irish migration. The most telling and recent one came from University College Cork’s Emigre project, a year-long study of Irish emigration, which charted where the latest wave of migrants is going and what their motivations are. Studies such as these are useful because they help us understand the emerging needs and how to respond. However, the depth of emotion associated with emigration cannot be reflected by statistics. Often these emotions – the difficulties associated with upheaval, loss, isolation and even feelings of guilt – play strong contributory factors to the susceptibility of individuals to developing mental health problems. Indeed, a poorly planned move has been constantly highlighted as a considerable aggravating factor.
An interesting issue that was also presented in this study was a question – and one I am often asked – do you plan on returning [to Ireland] one day? I’m sure many migrants have felt the pang of that open-ended question. The proximity of Ireland to London can prolong the psychological decision to settle here, with people living transnational lives and possibly remaining overly connected to another country. A belief that emigration is only for a short period and that the person will return home eventually can result in a suspended existence.
This introduces the notion of ‘home’, which has long been one of exploration, whether through art or writing, and presents a journey as confusing as it is exciting. Needless to say, the sense of home is inextricably linked to the act of emigration and relocation as a sense of being torn can be created. From the conversations I’ve had with Irish migrants over the years – from men in their mid-70s to women in their early 20s – it’s clear that it is a sensitive subject. Conflict of identity is an innately personal experience, though it is shared by a whole community and many other migrant communities. Any unresolved inner conflict relating to identity and belonging is likely to increase the possibility of poor mental health.
The term ‘lost generation’ is used repeatedly in the Irish media to reflect on the current iteration of emigration. While it may echo with readers as an inherently negative term and carries great weight, we have to acknowledge the positive of what migrants bring with them. But to make the move a success, pre-migration care/planning is fundamental. We’ve found that a lack of pre-planning and basic research of new systems can inevitably impact a migrant’s access to social and healthcare services. This poor preparation is one contributing factor to the poor mental and physical health that generations of London Irish people have experienced. Evidence of this includes higher standard mortality rates for most cancers, higher inpatient admissions for anxiety and depression and significantly higher rates of suicide.
Ironically as a nation of talkers there is much silence around mental health. At Mind Yourself, conversation plays a key role in our work to support the London Irish community to improve their wellbeing. To us age, gender, sexuality and whatever else present no obstacle to having a simple chat. Remember, Ireland is a small place and as a people by nature we look for commonalities – a common ground, something to build a relationship on. So don’t be surprised if an Irish person answers a question with another question – we’re not being evasive, we’re just trying to find our way to you.
On March 14 Mind Yourself is holding a creative fundraising event 6-9.30pm in Ku Bar, Soho. 100% of proceeds will go to support our mental health service. Full details here