Saturday 16 December 2017

Occupational Hazards: Joan Freeman

Founder of Pieta House Suicide and Self-harm crisis centre

Occupational Hazards: Joan Freeman of Pieta House
Occupational Hazards: Joan Freeman of Pieta House

Joan Freeman

As much as I don't want to admit it, I first went into counselling because I thought I knew it all. I was 30 years of age, married and a mother, and I thought I knew how to be a perfect wife and all that nonsense, so I trained with (marriage counsellors) CMAC, which later became Accord. When I think about how cocky I was about it all back then, I could laugh. Anyway, that was just the start, I did my Master's degree in psychology in 2005 and just became more and more enthralled.

I have had a personal experience (of losing someone to suicide). However, as there are children involved I think it's best not to talk about it in public. But I did see that when it came to people in suicidal crisis they went to their GP, but there was a gap there.

So many of the people who take their lives have no history of mental health issues. Some of them are reacting to a life event, and when the recession hit Ireland the suicide rate went up. Suicide can happen to anyone, but it can definitely happen to people who are not coping.

The media appears to be entirely focused on young people these days. However, we've started looking at older men, those who are aged between 25 and 35; men who have mortgages. They're so reluctant to get help. This is why we started the Mind Our Men campaign.

I came to the conclusion that if we want to change suicide rates in this country, we need to focus on men regardless of their age. Men won't ask for help, so start from that point. Let's not try to turn them into women.

With younger people, their brain and cognitive processes are still developing. There can be an impulse (to commit suicide) over something as simple as a break-up. That's not necessarily there in older people.

They don't have the ability to process things in the moment. The tipping points for older men often have to do with their livelihood, as their identity is firmly entrenched in their work.

Redundancy and unemployment are seen as a very personal attack on their identity.

In this economic climate, I find people are much kinder and willing to offer help (in a charitable or volunteering capacity). I don't know if that's everywhere, but Pieta House has definitely touched a chord in this country.

We got hundreds of applications for a receptionist job recently, and so many of those applicants had Master's degrees.

I think people are willing to change direction more these days, and they are starting to see that the most important thing in life isn't working, but reaching out to others. We were so caught up in the Celtic Tiger boom era that ambition totally blocked our vision.

Our volunteers are great – from the moment (a service user) walks in the door, they are enveloped in a very nurturing environment. It's great for the client, but the volunteer also feels as though they're getting some good for the soul.

We don't provide bereavement services, as our goal is to prevent suicide. We focus on intervening at the critical moment when someone wants to take their own life.

When I hear of a young person who has taken their life, I get quite distressed. I wonder if only someone had spotted something – not necessarily their family, but if someone is working with you seven hours a day, it's not difficult to tell if they're in good form or bad form. To me, we're not educating the public enough to see and spot these warning signs.

We're not necessarily associated with mental health or depression. Nine out of 10 people have never had a diagnosis. The man in his 80s who finds himself without his wife, the woman aged 45 who is menopausal or experiencing empty nest syndrome – this is often the theme.

If anything, I'd like to see a reduction in the need for our services. For every suicide that we have, it feels like a personal affront to me and to our therapists.

Out of the 3,000 people who came to us in 2012, 20 people went on to take their own lives. To me, that's 20 too many.

My husband and family are my carers. They ground me. When I decided to open Pieta House in a convent in Cork, I told (my husband) Pat: "I'm going to live in a convent in Cork for three to six months to get things started." He agreed to come with me.

I couldn't survive without him. But the people around you are the best indicators of self-care. I love going out walking, and my faith is very important to me, though I should probably work fewer hours.

One day I could be up at 5am and not get home until midnight; another day might consist of back-to-back meetings. I love it, although the hardest part is working nights or weekends. But when the people I meet are that extraordinary, I can't complain.

In conversation with Tanya Sweeney

For more information on Pieta House, go to or call 01-601 0000

Irish Independent

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