Nightmare of the child victims
Ulster has just six psychiatric beds to help teenagers traumatised by beatings, writes Christopher Walker
THEIR young bodies may be healing but their young minds are not. Teenage victims of paramilitary beatings often need specialist help to cope with the mental scars. In Ulster, of all places, such help can be hard to find.
The Province has just six psychiatric beds for 14 to l8 year olds. As a result, about 250 adolescents with serious psychiatric problems - many resulting from severe beatings by loyalist or republican squads - are being treated in adult psychiatric wards. This was the picture presented yesterday by Arlene Healey, head of Belfast's pioneering Family Trauma Centre, the main organisation set up to deal with the results of the beatings. The centre provides counselling for whole families who are traumatised by such beatings, in which the parents feel damaged in their roles as protectors.
Ms Healey said it was "horrifying" for the most disturbed children to be treated in adult psychiatric wards. She believes that the lack of the beds to provide care for those mentally traumatised by attacks is the result of a tendency to overlook the problems of the child victims of 30 years of conflict.
"As you can imagine, being in adult wards is a nightmare for these young people and of no real help in dealing with their problems, yet as things stand, we have no other opportunity," she said. "It is well known that some find the aftermath of severe punishment beatings so hard to cope with that they commit suicide.
"It is one reason why total suicides have jumped dramatically since 1969, when there were only five, compared with, for instance, 138 in 1994. In the same period, the number of annual mental health admissions rose from 7,831 to 10,183."
Although Ms Healey has been campaigning vigorously behind the scenes to have the number of psychiatric beds for child victims increased, she is now more hopeful because of the close interest that Peter Mandelson, the new Northern Ireland Secretary, has shown in the Family Trauma Centre. It was his first official port of call. His visit to the £500,000 government-funded centre - now fighting for new funds of its own - won him praise in the Belfast News Letter, the main Unionist daily.
It said: "The decision to re-arrange his diary and make time for a visit to a support centre for victims of so-called punishment beatings will be of tremendous comfort to all those who believe that the victims of violence have been too easily forgotten. In the light of the row over the veracity of paramilitary ceasefires, it was significant that he went out of his way to meet those who help young people who have been victimised and brutalised by the kind of people who would aspire to replace the RUC as the upholders of law and order in their communities." Ms Healey, whose centre claims to be unique in the way it counsels the traumatised families of the Troubles, said that whole families can be disturbed for years as the result of one punishment beating.
"Often the mother is very badly affected because she feels that her role as protector of her children has been dangerously undermined when these masked thugs come into the house and take one or more of them away for a savage beating," she said. "A similar feeling can hit the father and often one of the most traumatised is whoever in the family happened to open the door to let in the punishment gang."
The Northern Ireland Human Rights Bureau calculates that there have been at least 189 beatings of under-18s since last year's Good Friday peace agreement. The centre is in one of Belfast's few communally neutral areas.
Sometimes, when a traumatised family talks to a counsellor, two other counsellors watch behind a two-way mirror with the family's permission. The counsellors then swap places to facilitate discussion of problems that may have been glossed over for years. "What we have found happens on many occasions is that the mother becomes paranoid and will not allow any of her children outside the house again," Ms Healey said.
"As a result, a pressure cooker atmosphere builds up inside as the members of the affected family get on top of each other and a variety of disastrous consequences can follow. "