New York is one of the busiest cities in the world, but also one of the loneliest. After recognising a gap in vital mental healthcare for members of the Irish diaspora and beyond, Rebecca Skedd helped establish Solace House.
The chief executive of the organisation which provides a non-clinical approach to suicidal distress in New York is originally from Waterford.
"I completed a bachelor of arts in applied social studies in Waterford IT in 2012. During my college year, I took a J1 to New York in the summer. While I was working at the Granville Hotel in Waterford city after graduation, I was on the lookout for work in my field of study, when I got an email offering a one-year internship visa."
Six months later, she was on a plane to New York. "I had one friend, who was living in Yonkers and moved in with him and three others. We became best friends, and are still best friends."
Skedd landed an internship at the Irish Centre in Long Island City, which offers Irish and other people opportunities to participate in Irish culture and community.
“After completion of the internship, I was lucky to land a role as a social care manager for the centre, and my visa was extended. Part of my job was to work with the community to find out what services were lacking. It became clear very quickly that there was a need for a free, accessible counselling and support service for anyone in an emotional crisis.
“There was nothing here in New York for the wider Irish community, and people were suffering, especially the undocumented and uninsured.”
Skedd's first port of call was Senator Joan Freeman from the Pieta House suicide charity in Ireland. "We piggybacked off their established service and opened a pilot programme with Pieta House here in 2014."
The crisis and intervention service took off and demand was high “but we soon discovered that having Pieta House here made it more difficult for fundraising, as it was based in Ireland”. Meanwhile Pieta House feared it could be spreading itself too thinly while questions about legality and logistics prevailed, she says.
“Also it wasn’t our story. So we rebranded it after two years in 2017, and called it Solace House.”
Five years later, the organisation has six clinicians providing free and confidential sessions in centres in Yonkers and Queens. Skedd says the centres don’t have massive capacity but they don’t want to turn people away. “Most of our clients are Irish, but we welcome everyone.
“We have board members from across many sectors and have found the construction sector to be very supportive. Many of our longtime board members and donors have experienced first hand the utter devastation suicide perpetuates.”
In the US, reports suggest that men are four times more likely to die by suicide than women. The age bracket of most concern is 30-49.
“We keep an eye on the demographic and currently 39 per cent of people using our service are men. Sadly, it’s not always clear if someone dies by suicide as people die in what can also be accidents.”
But she says, the stigma around mental health exists as men feel under mounting pressure from modern challenges.
“There are many reasons why mental health issues occur. Childhood trauma is one and isolation is another. Obviously Covid-19 was very difficult for many people and the first year of the pandemic was brutal. Even just raising finances during lockdowns was hard as 90 per cent of our budget is fundraised and we rely greatly on goodwill.”
‘Lot of pain’
Skedd says missing home desperately as a result of the travel ban and crying regularly made her realise how the undocumented Irish in the US feel. “They are often in critical situations, where a loved one at home is sick or dies and they face the harsh reality of going home and giving everything up or staying and missing milestone events. There’s a lot of pain here, but we really want to help.”
“We have lots of mums calling us, who are worried about their sons and we try to accommodate everyone. There’s no timeline on how long we will see people. We work together until they are ready.”
Skedd says the charity also offers services to families of loved ones who are suicidal. “We offer an opportunity or talk about how they are and give them tools to look after themselves, as living with someone with mental health issues can take its toll.
“We are so dedicated to the people we help, that we have full-time staff, as we need full commitment from people for this service. “
Skedd still lives in Yonkers with her husband, surrounded by a strong Irish community. “New York is busy, and it’s a great place to live, but it’s expensive. You can see it in the grocery shop. It costs about €250 per week, which is a lot for two people. I always marvel at how cheap Ireland is compared to here, which says a lot. Obviously rents are high, depending on where you are. We have a big apartment for €2,000, which would cost €5,000 for the same place downtown.”
One of the luxuries Skedd affords herself is a car. “It’s unusual in New York, but it means I can get to the centres with ease. We’re around an hour from downtown on a good day.”
Skedd says she never planned to be in in New York for 10 years. “But in the absence of my family, I benefit from incredible friendships and live in a city where I’m making a difference to people’s lives. So it’s really worthwhile.”