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Wednesday 29 November 2023 Dublin: 2°C
Pieta House

'Darkness Into Light allows us to talk about the wound left by suicide'

Senator Joan Freeman talks to us about mental health services and being ‘a pain in the government’s neck’.

90412278 Sasko Lazarov / Joan Freeman Sasko Lazarov / /

THERE’S SOMETHING VERY powerful about a large group of people coming together to walk out of the darkness and into the light.

Evocative images of Darkness Into Light (DIL) from Ireland and beyond are now synonymous with suicide prevention and awareness.

Ahead of Pieta House’s annual flagship event, which is happening next Saturday, Pieta founder and former CEO Joan Freeman spoke to about why DIL has caught the public’s imagination, and the state of mental health services in Ireland.

Freeman, a Senator since last year, tells us she first came up with the idea for DIL about nine years ago, after she took part in the Dublin marathon

“I’ll swifty add, it was walking,” she laughs.

Shortly after the race she was on a plane from Dublin to Kerry and struck up a conversation with a woman who told her she had ran 12 marathons, with one of her favourites being a night run in Boston.

Freeman liked the idea of organising a nighttime or early morning event and mentioned it to her colleagues at Pieta.

“I thought, ‘Why don’t we do something not at nighttime but in the morning, something shorter, a 5k or whatever’. A committee was formed and the first ever DIL was held in 2009.

“It was 400 people in the Phoenix Park the first year, we didn’t even have t-shirts,” Joan recalls.

Some 120,000 people took part in the event last year in over 150 venues on four continents. A similar number of people are expected to take part next weekend. Freeman acknowledges it’s been a “phenomenal success”.

“The fact that it was taking place at night highlighted the issue of suicide,” she says.

Electric Ireland / YouTube

Freeman believes the event caught people’s imaginations as it “gave people permission to talk about [suicide]“.

“Every single person who takes part in it, particularly the people who took part in the early years, have all lost someone to suicide and are doing this walk in memory of the person they lost.

It’s a soothing ointment for that terrible wound. People are also selflessly doing it to stop it happening to other families, that’s the extraordinary generosity of the Irish.

“For one day of the year, the whole country comes together at 4.15 in the morning, in every single county, towns and villages across Ireland, and in other countries too, as a united force – that’s an extraordinary thing.

“Pieta is a success because of the public, Pieta belongs to the country,” Freeman tells us.

Console scandal 

The Irish charity sector has been rocked by a number of controversies in recent years, and notably the Console scandal last year.

The suicide prevention charity was wound down in 2016 after it emerged through an RTÉ investigation that its founders spent donated money on personal expenses.

An audit found that half a million euro was spent on foreign trips, designer clothes, eating out and other expenses between 2012 and 2014 – while another half a million was spent on salaries and cars for CEO Paul Kelly and his wife Patricia.

Earlier this month it emerged that 58 employees who worked for Console have not been paid and are unlikely to be in the future.

Pieta House took on Console’s services and some of its employees after the scandal emerged, something Freeman says was the “best solution” to a difficult situation.

“Pieta took over clients so there was no loss of support … We took over the staff too, so they weren’t just thrown aside. They’re innocent in all of this, that’s important to remember.

“All those people who had fundraised, their money was not lost in vain. Pieta took up the mantel and took up the baton.

Don’t lose your trust in charities, our country would be lost without charities. There are so many that are there – such as the Society of St Vincent de Paul and Barnardos – that if we didn’t have them, where would the country be without them?

“The government can’t provide all of the services they do.

“There’s corruption at every level of society, charities aren’t immune to this,” Freeman says, adding that she hopes the Charities Regulator will ensure what transpired at Console will “never happen again”.

‘A pain in the government’s neck’

Freeman was named as one of the Taoiseach’s nominees to the Seanad last May, after being chosen by Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin.

Soon afterwards, she announced she would be donating her €65,000 salary to Pieta.

How could I in fairness ask people to get up at 4.15 in the morning … and receive two salaries? I couldn’t, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself. The most sensible option was to give it to Pieta. I wanted to show people I’m as committed to Pieta as they are.

Pieta House has helped more than 25,000 people since 2006, and is extending its services in the US, something Freeman says many Irish people living there have supported.

90417834 Sasko Lasarov / People taking part in last year's DIL event at the Phoenix Park, Dublin Sasko Lasarov / /

Freeman has enjoyed her first year in the Seanad.

“I love it. There are so many mixed emotions, I’m so proud that I’m working for my country. It would never dawn on me to do anything like this. What it has given me first of all is an insight, it has also put me nearer to the government.

I’m there pecking away, being a pain in the neck. I’m working so hard on mental health issues, which are treated like Cinderella by the government. Any budget for mental health, lumps of it are taken away to fill gaps in other areas, without even batting an eyelid.

Freeman says mental health issues are often “shrugged off”, despite almost half of people in Ireland using mental health services for themselves or a member of their family at some point.

“They’re the most neglected services you can imagine, in particular child mental health services.”

‘Child psychiatry is dying’ 

Freeman singles out child psychiatry in particular here, saying it’s “dying” as there simply aren’t enough people working in the area.

The issue of children being admitted to adult mental health units has been raised repeatedly, with the Mental Health Commission criticising it again in recent weeks.

This issue was raised at the Irish Medical Organisation’s AGM recently, where doctors said there needs to be greater clarity over the definition of a ‘child’ when it comes to mental health services.

Dr Matthew Sadlier, a consultant psychiatrist, questioned if it was appropriate for a 17-year-old to receive treatment in the same mental health service setting as a 30-year-old or, indeed, a 12-year-old.

Freeman thinks the practice of admitting under 18s to adult wards needs to cease.

Over the next few months, I’ll bring forward legislation to make it illegal for children to be placed in adult psychiatry wards. Children aged 16-18 should have to consent to the treatment they receive, at the moment they don’t, but they do with physical health.

Ongoing rows over water charges and the national maternity hospital, to name but two, have made the government look somewhat unstable in recent times, as has Enda Kenny’s upcoming exit as Taoiseach.

Freeman is aware the government may fall “by the end of the year”, giving her an added push to try to get the legislation through as soon as possible.

Young people’s experiences 

Freeman is also in the process of compiling a report on young people’s experiences of mental health services.

“I’m asking the public to tell me their stories. What has it been like for them using the mental health services, in particular for children?,” she explains.

The Seanad Public Consultation Committee is inviting written submissions from interested groups or individuals.

The committee will consider the submissions and may invite some contributors to public hearings, which will take place in the Seanad chamber. When this public process is complete, the committee will publish a report which will be presented to the Oireachtas.

“They won’t be able to ignore that,” Freeman says.

If you wish to tell your story, email The closing date for receipt of submissions has been extended to 4pm on Friday, 12 May. More information can be read here.

Darkness Into Light is taking place on Saturday, 6 May and is supported by Electric Ireland. For more information, visit Pieta House’s website

If you need to talk, contact:

  • Pieta House 1800 247 247 or email (suicide, self-harm)
  • Samaritans 116 123 or email
  • Aware 1800 80 48 48 (depression, anxiety)
  • Teen-Line Ireland 1800 833 634 (for ages 13 to 19)
  • Childline 1800 66 66 66 (for under 18s)

Read: Pieta House founder will donate €65k senator salary to the charity

Read: Pieta House calls for ban on children being admitted to adult-only psychiatric units

Read: FactCheck: Has the government actually cut the mental health budget by €20 million?

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