Kathleen Laverty on The Continuing Trauma of 'The Troubles' in Northern Ireland

Kathleen Laverty focuses on women, victims and survivors of The Troubles.

A native of Northern Ireland, Kathleen Laverty is close to the continuing trauma of "The Troubles," the 30-year conflict that left more than 3,000 dead and many more wounded in sectarian battles between Loyalists and Nationalists.

A peace agreement came in 1998, but divisions run deep. With her colleagues at the Centre for Health and Well-Being, Laverty is addressing post-conflict issues that emerge in peoples' health. The program mainly treats women in West Belfast, where the violence associated with the Troubles was intense.

Since 2011, the center has worked with Duke students who come as part of the Duke Engage-Northern Ireland program.

Laverty, who will speak at 5 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 13, in the Smith Warehouse, discussed her work with Duke student Betsy Santoyo, an intern with the Duke Human Rights Center@the Franklin Humanities Institute.


Betsy Santoyo: What brought you to working on mental health issues in Northern Ireland?

Kate Laverty: In my previous job, I was intrigued at the number of youths we had showing a lack of self-identity. I began analyzing the reasons behind the issues and forayed into a world of mental ill health created from birth.  I was immensely impressed with Felitti and Anda's (1998) work on adverse childhood experiences and began to look to the parents of my young people, unknowingly wandering further down the path into understanding adult mental ill health. Realizing that Northern Ireland has one of the highest incidence rates of mental ill health in the developed world, I looked to place myself where I might do as much good with as many people as possible.


Santoyo: What are the most pressing issues with health care in post-conflict Northern Ireland?

Laverty: 3,600 people died, but more than 300,000 are currently being treated as victims of the Troubles, presenting with a plethora of mental health issues as a result of the insular thinking engendered during the conflict. People who experienced traumatic events are developing PTSD and using self-abusive strategies to cope, e.g. smoking, drinking, over-eating.  This is creating a ripple effect, nurturing a sense of urgency to stall the process while we can.  This ripple effect is felt among those who perpetrated the Troubles too; their imprisonment makes them miss school. Coupled with a criminal record, this impedes a search for employment, which brings its own mental health issues. The legacy of the conflict is not yet behind us; the issue of suicide is a case in point, which is not simply a manifestation of individual depression but integrally linked to the dynamics of the social context of the conflict in Northern Ireland.


Santoyo:  How does human rights thinking influence your approach to your work?

Laverty: Ignorance and lethargy are the direct result of economic, social and political domination.  I believe the poorest people in N. Ireland; Republican, Loyalist, Unionist and Nationalist alike, were subjugated and divided in order to maintain a status quo within power sharing circles.  Today, the health and human rights communities have much in common. Recently, the international community has begun to devote more attention to the right to the highest attainable standard of health. The right to health is enshrined in binding international treaties and constitutions. It has numerous elements, including the right to health care and the underlying determinants of health, such as adequate sanitation and safe water, but what of mental health?


Santoyo: What kind of work do you do with HereNI? What is it like for lesbian families in Northern Ireland. 

Laverty: For lesbian families in N. Ireland, there are so specific health care services to meet their needs.  New mothers are given a ‘little red book,' which references the role of 'daddy' and 'the father'; no nuance is made for same sex parent families.  Lesbian women have just won their right to adopt children after a two-year legal battle with the health minister who used public money to fund a personal crusade against LGBT adults and their right to raise children.  The HERE NI Family Group is run by mums and would-be mums. It's a group/meeting space for lesbian and bisexual women who have kids or who are planning to have children and meets and meets once a month to share ideas and resources, offer support and organize events.  I have recently been involved in securing a commitment from a member of parliament to establish a task force to create a sexual orientation strategy for Northern Ireland, something that was promised 6 years ago but with no action taken thus far.


Santoyo: What kind of work do you do with DukeEngage? What do you think about civic engagement by students?

Laverty: Through their service, Duke students help address a particular community's issues and embrace the opportunity to learn and grow developmentally throughout the process. My work with DukeEngage has been to facilitate students through the Centre for Health and Well Being.  I involve the students in a cross community history group I established in 2009.  The students attend a few of the history group sessions and usually get away on at least one trip with the group too.  Like all of the N. Ireland DukeEngage partners, we foster human rights culture, working to lessen sectarian division, implementing stronger human rights reporting and protections, and working at the grassroots level to address how the violent past can be acknowledged and used as a way to construct a more peaceful future.  Civic engagement on the part of the student comes from them conducting research, updating databases, archiving material for posterity, and auditing existing services with a view to identifying gaps in provision.  Fresh eyes too can help those of us working in the sector daily to appreciate the scope of our work.  The frank and often naive observations of the students have, in the past, jolted the blinkered thought processes of victims and survivors in N. Ireland.


Santoyo: What do you see as the future of Northern Ireland, particularly in terms of human rights?

Laverty: Ideally, I'd love to see mental health as a fundamental social justice issue.  We are currently advocating that there is no health without mental health.  Efficient conscientious leadership is needed; it is my personal opinion that a health minister who denounces LGBT communities and refuses to speak to Nationalist groups should be ousted from his ministerial position.  The presence of religious zealots in government is a direct consequence of the peace process. Exhaustion with conflict and a desire for peace meant that social issues such as women's and gay rights became secondary in an atmosphere where equality is discussed solely in terms of religious and cultural background.

Concern for the public's health demands that disparities in treatment and the disproportionality of the burden of illness be eradicated and recent debates have given me hope that this can and will be achieved. However, it's an enormous task and requires early prevention work as well as sustained intervention work with adults.  I believe this can promote the well being of communities, localities, regions, and thus the country.