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Social hardship linked to mental illness in second generation Irish

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SOCIAL hardships have left a section of Britain’s second generation Irish suffering from acute mental illness, a landmark study has revealed.

Research, published in the British Medical Journal by five senior academics from British universities, has tracked the health and social situations of 17,000 people born in Britain in 1958.

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It found that young adults with at least one Irish parent were almost 50 per cent more likely to screen positive for depression than the rest of the population.

It also found that second-generation Irish people experienced “marked social adversity” throughout their childhood relative to the non-Irish population.

However that gap had closed significantly by the time they reached mid-life.

Despite that, the higher incidence of mental health problems persisted and they were still 25 per cent more likely to say they were not in good health at the age of 45.

But Professor Louise Ryan from Middlesex University, whose work on depression in Irish migrants is cited in the paper, said caution must be exercised when interpreting the study.

“We need to be very careful of saying that the Irish have really high rates of depression because it feeds into a stereotype,” she said. “A much more important conclusion based on this data is the effect of childhood poverty, which is so salient in Britain today when the rates of childhood poverty are still a disgrace. What this research shows is not that the Irish have some kind of predisposition to physical and psychological health problems, but that childhood poverty haunts people for the rest of their lives.”

Claire Barry, Director of London-Irish health charity Mind Yourself, believes that the stigma of being Irish in the 70s and 80s, when these people reached young adulthood, would have also affected the mental health of second-generation Irish people.

“At that time there would have been very overt discrimination against Irish people,” she said. “That is a key factor in the standard of living that people experienced, which certainly impacted on their life chances and on their long-term health.

She added: “If a person or a community or a family are unwanted or uncared for in an area, I don’t think anybody can dispute that that has an impact on someone’s health and well-being in the long term.” Around 4-in10 of Mind Yourself’s clients are second generation Irish.

Researchers also accessed their subject’s health at age 23 in 1981 at the height of the Troubles.

Speaking in the British Medical Journal paper they stated: “The conflict in Northern Ireland had escalated such that anti-Irish discrimination and issues relating to identity may have had a particular salience for second-generation Irish people. This may have contributed to the mental health inequalities noted at this age.”

The paper builds on four decades of research indicating that the Irish in Britain experience higher mortality and morbidity relative to the rest of the population.

Several previous studies have highlighted an elevated incidence of depression and suicide in Irish-born and second-generation Irish people in Britain.

Dr Mary Tilki from the Federation of Irish Societies has now called for further research into the health of the newer second-generation Irish.

She said: “We do not have this type of data on the new second generation. I would imagine that it still rings true in certain sections of the community, but health and material hardship were less of a problem for the more affluent and educated group that arrived in subsequent waves of migration.”


Niall O Sullivan

Niall O’Sullivan is a reporter at The Irish Post. You can follow him on @Niall_IrishPost on Twitter

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One comment on “Social hardship linked to mental illness in second generation Irish”

  1. Jonathan O'Dea

    This is an interesting report into mental health issues effecting second generation Irish people. But I wonder if conflict in ones cultural identity may also play a part in mental health issues: coming from an Irish background but also trying to part of an English identity. Maybe some conflict may arise when dealing with a duel identity?


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