Crisis centre with healing model based on compassion

With three more centres in the pipeline, Pieta House chief Joan Freeman says the charity is thriving


When Joan Freeman put her family home up as collateral to open the first centre for the prevention of self-harm and suicide in Ireland, she never envisaged that eight years down the line, Pieta House would be helping more than 4,000 people a year all over the country.

“When we opened Pieta House in Lucan, I thought we would look after Lucan, Leixlip and Maynooth and that would be it, but nine centres later, when so many charities have had to reduce services or close, we are not only surviving but thriving and have plans to open three more centres. I can see now that we have been led by this all along the way,” she says.

It was after a personal experience of losing somebody to suicide in 2002 (which she does not like to talk about in public as there are children involved) that Freeman decided to leave the practice she shared with two other psychologists. She spent three years researching suicide intervention models and developing what was to become the Pieta Way.

She recalls: “It was quite clear to me where the gap in services was. All we had was the medical model where people who were in despair were treated as patients who were sick. I could see that the majority of people who were taking their own lives were not sick, but were reacting to a life event. They just needed to be held and shown kindness and compassion.”

‘Lightbulb moment’
It was Michaelangelo’s famous work of art, the Pietá , a universally recognised symbol of compassion and hope, that led to Freeman’s “lightbulb moment” and lent its name to the organisation. She was struck by the incredible power of that iconic image of the mother holding the broken body of her son on her wide lap with such majestic acceptance on her face.

Not, Freeman hastens to explain, that she is asking mothers to accept the deaths of their sons – rather that Pieta House is embracing the broken lives of people who are suicidal and accepting them wherever they are at.

The Pieta healing model is centred on compassion and focused on solving problems and building emotional strength. All the therapists understand the complex reasons behind suicide and self-harm, she says, and are trained in the Pieta Way.

Research carried out by Pieta’s director of research, Paul Surgenor, (and due to be published soon) has shown that six months after treatment, clients are reporting that their suicidal ideation and feelings of depression are still on a downward curve while their level of self-esteem is raised.

“As well as the best model of care, I wanted to create a place where I would like to bring a family member or loved one if they were in mental distress. There are still wards in this country that instil great fear in people. I wanted to create somewhere home-like, tranquil and peaceful,” says Freeman.

This is something she has achieved with Pieta’s newest and largest centre to date, Pieta House in Cork. With the help of her sister, Marian Regan, who is an interior designer, Freeman has converted a large convent in Bishopstown provided by the Sisters of Mercy, into a warm, welcoming, light-filled space where people and their families can go for help.

Regan has replicated the peaceful Pieta ambience in each of the centres, explains Freeman, and she doesn’t get paid, not even travel expenses as it is her way of contributing.

Setting up
Freeman and her husband, Pat, have moved from Dublin to Cork for six months and are living in an apartment in the former convent while she oversees the setting up of the service. The former bedrooms on the first floor make ideal counselling rooms, each simply furnished with two chairs, a lamp, candles and a box of tissues.

Since it opened last December, the Cork centre has been busy with 10 therapists now working flat out. It is open Monday to Saturday and late Wednesday nights and there are plans to open on Sundays and bank holidays and to stay open until 9pm every night just like the Dublin centres.

There are now 170 people employed by Pieta House at centres in Dublin (Lucan, Ballyfermot, Tallaght and Finglas); Tuam, Co Galway; Mungret, Co Limerick; Castleisland, Co Kerry; Roscrea, Co Tipperary and Cork. There are plans to open centres soon in Waterford, Athlone and Donegal which would mean the realisation of Freeman’s dream of having a Pieta service within 100km of every person in Ireland.

More than 4,000 people in crisis were seen by therapists at Pieta centres last year, all free of charge. Freeman feels strongly about the need to remove all barriers to accessing help, including cost and the requirement for GP referral – most people are referred to the service by concerned relatives or friends.

As she remarks, “You can’t expect somebody who is broken emotionally to get help for themselves.”

Clients are seen a minimum of twice a week, and several times a week if they are deemed high risk.

It costs a little over €4.2 million to run Pieta House every year, of which 90 per cent comes from public donations and fundraising and a mere €300,000 from the National Office for Suicide Prevention. However, Freeman is not interested in whingeing about the lack of Government support.

“I don’t blame the Government, they can’t fund every single good cause in the country, but we as a nation do need to acknowledge that it is the public who are paying for the vital services provided by the likes of Pieta and the Vincent de Paul. The support we have had from people every step of the way has been extraordinary, it has been miraculous.”

Pieta’s annual Darkness into Light fundraiser has become one of Ireland’s largest national charitable events. More than 40,000 people took part in the 5km walk/run last year and twice this number are expected to set off at 4.15am for this year’s event on Saturday, May 10th next. The event is spreading to London and Sydney this year and the charity hopes to raise more than €1 million.

The number of people who died through suicide in 2006, the year Freeman opened the first Pieta House was 460, according to official statistics. This increased to 554 in 2011 and 507 in 2012 (the most recent available figures) but like others working in the area of suicide prevention, Freeman believes that the actual figures are higher.

She points out that there were more than 1,600 accidental deaths in Ireland last year, including car accidents, drownings, poisonings and undetermined deaths, some of which may have been suicides.

“We realised that for us to tackle suicide in this country, we had to focus on men. Ten people die every week from suicide in Ireland and eight of them are men, yet 57 per cent of the people who use our services are women and it’s mainly women who makes appointments for men.

“This is why we launched our Mind Our Men campaign which calls on the men and women of Ireland to watch out for signs of distress in the men closest to them.

“The two main tipping points for men are anything to do with loss of employment, such as unemployment, retirement or a failed business, and the end of a significant relationship either through break-up or death.”

Her husband, Pat, and their four children have been hugely supportive of Freeman’s devotion to her work in suicide prevention.

“Pat agreed to move to Cork with me for six months to set up Pieta Cork. He has agreed to everything from the start, even putting our home up as collateral while we had four teenagers to support when he could have kicked up.

“He has sacrificed so much over the last 10 years as I have not been present, either physically or emotionally, for so much of the time. The support he and our children have given me has been fantastic.”

With Pieta House going from strength to strength, Freeman’s greatest fear is of developing “founderitis” in the future.

“It’s important to recognise when you come to the stage where you need to hand over the organisation you founded and you must trust others to bring it to the next level. We have a staff of 170 amazing people and at some stage, I will hand over the reins to those in management and spend some more time with my husband and family, but I will always be involved with Pieta in some way,” she smiles.

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