Senator Frances Black is an independent senator in Ireland’s Oireachtas and a member of its Good Friday Agreement Implementation Committee. She has family roots in Rathlin Island and a strong commitment to addressing mental health challenges. Frances is also a very modest person. “I'm first and foremost a singer you know,” she says. “And I left school when I was very young. I don't have a great language. But I do know that people understand the language of the heart. It's also about warmth isn't it?”
Frances was interviewed in the latest of ‘Forward Together’ podcast interviews. She believes that while mental health was damaged in Northern Ireland – or the six counties in her words – many of the issues are common throughout the island of Ireland. “We know the suicide rates are huge in certain areas in the north, but we also know that the suicide rates in Cork are huge.”
She explains: “We all know particularly within the six counties people have been impacted by the conflict. And you know the trauma that comes out of that and how that can be carried on down the generations and the legacy of it. I know myself even travelling to the north, you could feel the tension, you could feel at any point there could be something that's going to go off, or there could be an explosion, or you see the army going around with guns.”
Mental ill-health is especially prevalent, Frances points out, in those families where a parent was imprisoned – and the impact of that has carried down the generation. “If you have a partner that maybe went to jail, or if you had a family member that would have been killed or shot or whatever, the huge trauma in all of that. So the way it was dealt with was being given a prescription medication. So there were huge amounts of medication given out. And that can impact the next generation... whatever community you are from, it doesn't matter because the impact is the same.
“The children nearly lose both parents - because the parent under prescription medication cannot be present. They can go through the motions. Often the eldest child will look after the rest of the kids and then there's this ongoing legacy that's carried on down and that's what addiction does.... I met with different communities - I met with both sides - the issues are the same, the heartache is the same.”
Those similarities include mental ill-health and addiction, while going beyond these. “The deprivation and the lack of housing and the lack of jobs and all of those things. People started to talk about mental health and I remember one man saying that he was with a group of young men and he asked them what kind of job would you love to do. One said ‘my dream job is to drive a van for the local supermarket’.”
Suggests Frances, another problem is that since the Good Friday Agreement, the closeness of communities has been lost. “No matter what side of the community, there was a great sense of community on either side, because everybody looked after everybody and everybody supported everybody. But more recently that's gone. It is not that same sense of people looking out for each other and that seems to have disintegrated a little bit, but they are still different communities. So my belief is that now it's about bonding the two communities.”
Dealing with that, she believes, should start with a greater focus on integrated education. “I know that there is a lot of work to do. And at the end of the day, I would love to see [more] integrated schools. I'd love to see the churches working together.”