Novel Research, Kindness and Trauma

Research Trip 2 for my novel, from 21st January to 2nd February in Northern Ireland, gave me access to generously shared experience and expertise from writers, sociologists, historians, academics, journalists, teachers and an educationalist, former civil servants, librarians, language activists, clergy, lawyers, a farmer, a statistician, a youth worker and many who shared from the cutting edge of their painfully gained experience.

I was struck too by the kindness with which I was treated.

I cannot do justice to the events and individuals who gave me their time. I will, however, single out, among the public events I attended,  the conference organised by the Ulster University Faculty of Health and Life Sciences: Addressing the Transgenerational Transmission of Trauma and Mental Illness in Northern Ireland.

I had noticed something of a narrative about Northern Ireland along the lines of: the effect of the Troubles is exaggerated; it’s all behind us now and I wanted to get beyond personal opinion to some facts about ‘legacy’ and ‘impact’.

Logo of the Institute of Mental Health Sciences, University of Ulster

This was a model of a good conference. It was relaxed but efficient, with a variety of topics within the subject range. Although the subject-matter was sombre, and at times tragic, there was a purposeful sense of resources and insights being mobilised and marshalled. I strongly recommend taking a look at the agenda (see link above) and at the 4 Talk notes available on that site.

Included are slides from trauma researcher and mental health practitioner, David Bolton whose talk impelled me to immediately buy his recent book, ‘Conflict, Peace and Mental Health: Addressing the consequences of conflict and trauma in Northern Ireland‘ (Manchester University Press, 2017). He was pulled into helping in the aftermath of the Omagh Bombing (15th August 1998) and has acquired a deep understanding of trauma, its after-effects, its impact and the services needed to deal with it  effectively and compassionately.

The book is both magisterial and accessible and, crucially, its assertions are evidence-based. It witnesses to the cost of conflict, not only in physical injury and death, but in the mind. It gives the lie to any attempt to minimise the impact of the violence. As David Bolton put it in his talk, ‘I don’t think we’ve really grasped how negative it has been.’

In the Postscript, David Bolton recognises the paradoxical position of …

those who are bereaved, injured and distressed … They, and the crisis some face in making the transition to a new world, remain to unsettle the peace, the peace-builders and those who enjoy the benefits of peace. Yet, those who have suffered can also be sources of hope and inspiration, offering an unexpected and progressive alternative to what might seem inevitable on-going conflict.’

This recognition of the dignity and the creative potential of those who suffer, for  whom ‘the past is now’, is typical of the book’s approach.

The conference offered many examples of creative reaction to suffering. Among them was Hopeful Minds

Marie Dunne, Mental Health Promotion Specialist for the Western Health and Social Care Trust took us through a primary school initiative to teach children how to hope and develop resilience: a simple yet effective intervention.

Prof Siobhan O’Neill, introducing the conference, asserted that the transmission of trauma across the generations is ‘the number one issue facing us today. Unbeknownst to ourselves, we pass this stuff on.‘ Many speakers referred to the high rate of suicide among people under 25 in Northern Ireland.

Prof Siobhan O’Neill 4th from left, with some of the speakers

David Bolton reminded us that the Good Friday Agreement, whose 20th anniversary is approaching on the 10th April, made a commitment to addressing the human impact of the Troubles. The conference gave the lie to any attempt to minimise the effect of the Troubles or of the continuing impact of aggression and hostility in the 2 decades of ‘post-Conflict’ life in Northern Ireland.

How we treat each other really does affect us in body and mind. Through parenting, through genetic transmission and via the complex interaction of biological processes and stress we are setting the scene for the next generation.

Becoming conscious of the impact of our behaviour is essential, wherever we live, whoever we are.  Organising to help policy-makers, trades unions, employers, care-givers, the media address the needs of vulnerable citizens is equally essential –  a point made forcibly by Fergus Cumiskey, CEO of Contact NI, provider of  Lifeline, the Northern Ireland-based crisis response service for people in distress or despair.

This conference started my research period off at ground level, ‘where all the ladders start’.

Derelict Jennymount Mill, Belfast


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