Applied Psychology in a Community Context

Applied Psychology in a Community Context

By Mary Tobin


In the swampy lowland, messy, confusing problems defy technical solution.  The irony of this situation is that the problems of the high ground tend to be relatively unimportant to individuals or society at large, however great their technical interest may be, while in the swamp lie the problems of greatest human concern. (Schön, 1987, p.3)

In undergraduate research it can be difficult to reconcile what might be important to study with what can realistically be done. One way of focusing on what is important to study is to look at national policies and strategies. Connecting for Life 2015-2020 (Ireland’s national strategy to reduce suicide) was launched at the same time as I was planning my undergraduate research. One of the goals of Connecting for Life is the development of targeted approaches to reducing suicidal behaviour and improving mental health among specific minority groups and among those bereaved by suicide.

ddMy research aim was to look at the experience of grief following bereavement by suicide and by multiple loss among one such minority group – the Travelling community. The All Ireland Traveller Health Study reports a rate of suicide among Traveller men of more than six times that of the general population. The literature on bereavement suggests that these types of traumatic deaths within a close network may be more likely to lead to complicated or unresolved grief reactions.

This is not a straightforward topic, but qualitative psychology can be a sensitive way to engage with some of the difficult, distressing, messy, and confusing aspects of lived experience.  I used a method of analysis called Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA), which has been described as a “purposeful empathetic approach” (Barry, 2014, p.31). IPA uses the words of the participant and the interpretation of the researcher to create a vivid picture of what an experience is like – in this case, what it is like to experience bereavement by suicide and multiple loss.

The data in my study came from three group interviews which I conducted with a total of ten Traveller Community Health Workers (members of the Travelling community employed as primary care health workers).

My analysis showed a picture of individual, family, and community-level loss that is extensive, profound, and enduring. One of the most striking findings for me was the impact of tragic loss on children: their grief may be lost as adults attempt to protect them by either excluding them from the mourning process, or creating a less upsetting explanation of the death, or minimising their knowledge through conscious avoidance or omission of details.

This project would have been impossible for me to complete as an undergraduate researcher without the collaboration of the local community organisations which employ Traveller Community Health Workers, and the information and advice which I received from the Traveller Health Unit of the HSE South. In order to make good on both the investment of the participants and my own intention to produce something useful, my next step is the challenging one of disseminating the research.


Schön, D. (1987). Educating the reflective practitioner. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Smith, J.A., Flowers, P., & Larkin, M. (2009). Interpretative phenomenological

analysis: Theory, method and research. London: Sage.

Picture Credits:

21 grams by Seamus McGuinness

Helgi Halldorsson via Flickr