“People want to feel they’re not alone” - says John Connors

18 May 2023
John Connors

“People want to feel they’re not alone,” says John Connors, the award-winning actor and film director. “The power of depression or mental illness is that it has this ability to make you feel alone, because you’re holding it as a secret.”

Eleven years ago, before the acting and directing career, John Connors was sitting “in a little box bedroom in the darkness contemplating suicide,” he told a stunned audience during his acceptance speech on winning the Best Actor category at the 2018 Irish Film and Television Awards. He then dedicated his award to his father, who died by suicide when John was barely an adult. “This one is for you daddy,” he said. A clip of the acceptance speech went viral, shining a much-needed public spotlight on the mental health crisis among Travellers, and prompting many messages of support and encouragement – including from Tyson Fury.

The few statistics that exist are grim. A 2006 all-Ireland study estimated that Travellers – mainly young adults – were six times as likely to die by suicide as the wider population. A more recent study in 2023 has backed that up, and researchers from both studies cite racism and ‘cultural dislocation’ - or forced assimilation and resettlement to call a spade a spade - as major factors in this shocking loss of life.

“When you mess with someone's identity, it's catastrophic,” says Connors, adding that most Travellers in Ireland have been uprooted from their traditional way of life and resettled on council estates. “Young Travellers are growing up without having a great grasp of their own language and their culture and then going to school and being discriminated for it.”

John Connors was interviewed by the TT's Lisa Smith (c) Rural Media
John Connors was interviewed by the TT's Lisa Smith (c) Rural Media

John Connors is being interviewed for this article by Lisa Smith at the Travellers’ Times office in Hereford. He is in the UK to take part in a short film produced by Rural Media for the Samaritans; the mental health and suicide charity and helpline, who recognised they needed to do more to inform Gypsy & Traveller people about their work after meeting with Claire Rice and Josie O’Driscoll from GATE Herts.

John Connors helped to script the film and poignantly speaks the part of a Traveller Man who calls the Samaritans when he is struggling with his mental health after the loss of his father. The film can be watched below:

“Suicide is the number one killer of Travellers,” says John Connors. “So, to say that I know people who have killed themself is an understatement; friends, family and my own father, but acting - creativity - is what saved me.”

When life is difficult, Samaritans are here – day or night, 365 days a year. You can call them free on 116 123

This article first appeared in the Spring/Summer 2023 Travellers’ Times Magazine which is out now. You can subscribe here.

By Lisa Smith/TT

(Lead photograph: John Connors © Shane O’Connors)