Monday 19 March 2018

'I'm blessed to work with people in crisis' - Pieta House founder Joan Freeman

A leading light in the prevention of suicide in Ireland, Pieta House founder Joan Freeman tells our reporter she sees a sea change in attitude towards stigma all over the country

Joan Freeman, founder of Pieta House, at a Darkness Into Light event.
Joan Freeman, founder of Pieta House, at a Darkness Into Light event.

Chrissie Russell

Tenyears ago Joan Freeman approached someone to help her fund her idea for an organisation to fight deaths by suicide. They knocked her back. She was told that the charity wasn't "sexy" enough to merit their support. Instead, with the backing of her husband and four teenage children, she used her own home as collateral to borrow €130,000 from the bank, and used the money to open the doors to the first Pieta House centre near her home in Lucan, Dublin.

Today the organisation has helped more than 20,000 people in suicidal distress or engaging in self-harm. In June they'll open their tenth centre, and in September a New York branch of Pieta House will complete its pilot year. The model for care and suicide intervention is now in demand all over the world.

"We've been asked to set up a Pieta service in so many countries," reveals Joan (57). "Canada has asked us to consider bringing Pieta there and I'm just back from talks in Iceland. We said to them 'look, we'll help you set up your own,' but they don't want that. Their attitude is 'why change something that has worked so well?'"

This year she anticipates that some 130,000 people will take part in Pieta's powerful flagship fundraising event, Darkness Into Light, a dawn walk or run that's often embraced as a poignant image of hope for those who have lost someone to suicide.

"We've Darkness Into Light going across the Golden Gate Bridge this year," she says enthusiastically. "Just think about what that means, a bridge that's known as the bridge of tragedy and we're changing it into a bridge of hope.

"I'm so proud of what we've achieved," she continues. "Ireland is leading the way in this and that's the thing I'm most proud of, I'm so proud to be Irish."

Joan was a practicing psychologist when she established Pieta House, closing down her own counselling business to set up the centre to help people in crisis. The idea was born out of her own medical background but also the personal loss of a family member. She doesn't like to elaborate on that experience, saying simply it "isn't my story to tell" but what she went through made her question the gaps in the system for those needing help and families affected by suicide.

A year after Pieta opened, the recession hit and the suicide rate, particularly among construction workers and farmers, spiked.

"It showed what we had been trying to say, that suicide is mainly people who are reacting to a life event," says Joan. "Yes some people may be depressed, but seven or eight people out of every 10 that came to us were there because of a reaction to a life event."

By treating people who are suicidal with compassion and respect, Pieta House has also done a huge amount to change the dialogue around suicide and mental health in Ireland.

"Ten years ago people wouldn't even say the word 'suicide'," says Joan, reflecting on the person who didn't consider suicide "sexy" enough to be associated with the charity.

"Now look how far we've come. I'm so pleased the attitude is changing and I think we will see a reduction, probably a substantial reduction, in suicide without a doubt in another couple of years," she adds.

"Because, with my generation, there's probably still a bit of a stigma there, but the younger generation are really going to benefit."

In another 10 years she hopes she'll be able to say it was a "job well done" and Pieta's services will ultimately become redundant.

She thinks it's the fact that we are talking about suicide more now that accounts for the increase in awareness of people needing help. "I don't think things have gotten worse, I think we're just more aware now and people are more willing to seek help," explains Joan.

"Over 6,000 people came to us last year - that is such good news, where would they have gone before?"

Changing attitudes to suicide and encouraging people to access help is something Joan, who stepped down as CEO a few years ago and now focuses on promoting Pieta internationally, wants to replicate in New York.

"The stigma is worse in New York, it's like they're 10 or 20 years behind us," she says. "They're ahead of us in so many ways but when it comes to suicide it is just awful in the way it's handled.

"If someone is suicidal the police are phoned, they're brought in front of a judge and the judge will put them into lockdown - that's why people don't want to speak about it."

In Ireland approximately 500 deaths a year are recorded to suicide. The equivalent of a jumbo jet, full of men, women and children, crashing every year. "In America we're talking about three jumbo planes crashing every week," says Joan.

It's hard to imagine where one might start with combating such an epidemic, or how to cope with being faced with such pain and loss on a daily basis.

"You have to believe in what you're doing," says Joan, but she's "haunted by every death" when someone's interaction with Pieta doesn't have the happy ending they'd hoped for.

The staff are supported in dealing with that pain but interestingly, many members stay with the organisation for years.

"They get an awful lot from it," explains Joan. "We're dealing with life and death and when people come through the other side it is heart warming to see them survive and thrive. We're blessed and honoured to work with people who are in crisis."

She gets thousands of thank-yous - not that she feels she's earned them. "I just had an idea," she insists, "I can't take ownership of any success, it's been an effort by the staff who have at times had to give their own money to pay the therapists and Electric Ireland who helped us from day one.

"It's all the people who had the courage to come to us or anyone who came to Pieta with their child or their dad. It's been an effort by the whole people of Ireland and anyone who's ever put a euro in a bucket, or walked a kilometre or held a coffee morning - they're the ones who have made Pieta House the success that it is today."

For more information see and for details on Darkness Into Light, held on Saturday, May 7, see

Irish Independent

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