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From zero funding to a thriving New York branch: Joan Freeman's Pieta House journey

In 2006, Freeman put her house up as collateral to fund Pieta House. Now, she’s just launched a New York branch.

90412284_90412284 Joan Freeman Source: Sasko Lazarov via Rolling News

“MY HUSBAND WOULD be awake every night terrified but I never doubted for a second that it wouldn’t work.”

Eleven years ago, Senator Joan Freeman made the decision to make a change to the mental health landscape of Ireland and open up an organisation to fight suicide. Freeman initially failed to secure funding for her project, but she never gave up.

She put everything on the line and used her own home, which she shares with her husband and four children, as collateral to borrow €130,000 from the bank. This allowed her to open up the first Pieta House in Dublin.

Fast forward to today – Pieta House has now supported over 20,000 people suffering from self-harm or suicidal thoughts and it has 10 centres across Ireland. It has been such a success that people have taken notice on a global level and Freeman just opened a New York equivalent – Solace House.

The development of Pieta House

Speaking to TheJournal.ie about the whirlwind that Pieta House has become over the years, Freeman said: “Within months, people started donating and fundraising. It was an extraordinary thing to watch.”

Pieta House had 70 clients in its first year.

“Remember what Ireland was like? Who was going to admit that they were suicidal and some to a place that talked about nothing but suicide and self-harm? But then it just skyrocketed,” Freeman said.

Freeman was humble and modest when she spoke about the impact that Pieta House has had. She said that she never felt like the founder of the organisation, merely a facilitator.

She explained: “If you think of a jigsaw puzzle… you always pick the piece of something you recognise as that first piece. Then you surround it by, again, things that you recognise.

“It reminds me of the growth of Pieta. I was that first little piece of the jigsaw. I surrounded myself with people who believed in me and we formed a board.

Now, you’re left with the big picture – the jigsaw. If you take away that first piece of jigsaw, have you got left? You’ve still got the big picture.

‘Changing the social fabric of Ireland’

Since the inception of Pieta House, dozens of other mental health organisations have been set up across the country – Freeman believes Pieta House was a trailblazer for beginning a conversation around suicide prevention in Ireland.

“We have changed the social fabric of Ireland,” she told TheJournal.ie.

She took a moment to mention Pieta House’s annual flagship event – Darkness Into Light – where thousands of people gather every year in various locations around the country to walk out of the darkness of the night into the light.

“It’s on at 4am and there are so many children who go to it. Think about the conversations between the parents and the child. The conversations have started and these children will never be afraid of suicide. They will never be afraid to seek help,” she said.

Despite the fact the Freeman spoke so positively about the progress Ireland has made, she doesn’t believe we have broken the barrier of mental health stigma and that “there are still people who are afraid to say they are depressed”.

“What we’re passed is possibly the stigma over suicide.”

‘It’s time to give something back’

Freeman resigned as CEO of Pieta House in 2014. She has since been working as a Senator but is looking at new projects both on home ground and abroad.

Having belief that the stigma around suicide has been overcome in Ireland, but not mental health in its entirety, Freeman is about to launch Mental Health Advice Ltd to tackle that.

The company aims to “infiltrate every level of society to make them realise that mental health is exactly the same as physical health”.

At that point, I’m hoping that we will be the very first country who will eliminate the stigma completely from every level of society.

Freeman has been a busy woman in recent months. Along with her role as Senator and getting the groundwork in place for Mental Health Advice Ltd, she has also listened to those across the pond who wanted a similar service as Pieta House and has launched Solace House in New York.

“We were approached by people in New York about bringing the service to the Irish diaspora. That was a wonderful conversation,” Freeman said.

The Irish have to remember that whenever there’s a crisis here, whether it’s a famine or whether it’s the job economy we go fleeing to America and it’s time to give something back.

It made sense to latch onto starting afresh in America when it was suggested because, according to Freeman, the Irish who live in New York struggle with their mental wellbeing.

“Whenever anybody leaves Ireland, they’re not leaving with an absolutely perfect mental and physical well being,” she said.

“They have no support system and if they’re illegal and something happens at home they can’t come home,” she said.

Freeman was firm on her stand that Ireland is leading the way with regards to mental health and that it was important to share that experience with America.

“America is appalling. They’re where we were 30 years ago, 50 years ago and other countries aren’t far behind,” she said.

“Most countries are using a medical model for suicide or for mental health. The thing is, with compassion, there’s no boundaries or frontiers. It can be applied everywhere.”

Rounding off the conversation, TheJournal.ie asked Freeman what she would say to those, both in Ireland and abroad, who are suffering from their mental health over the Christmas period.

I wouldn’t say anything to the people who need support. I would say to the rest of the country to look out for people who might need a hand and reach out to them. Bring them into your home, look after them, make a fuss of them and mind them.

“Keep an eye out, it can be very lonely at Christmas and certainly stressful. If you want to give a gift to someone, give a bit of your heart to them. That’s the best gift of all.”

Read: Pieta House founder Joan Freeman leaving charity for new mental health project in New York

More: ‘I’m surprised that the leader of our country had the neck to walk in Darkness Into Light’

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