'I'm humbled by the people who fundraise and donate from their pensions and Confirmation cash'
JOAN Freeman, founder of Pieta House, tells Andrea Smith how she started the suicide prevention charity 11 years ago
'It is really important not to normalise suicide. The official figures indicate that 523 people took their lives last year, eight out of 10 of whom were men. But they are so far off the true figures. There are coroners in some counties who don't record deaths as suicide, but some road accidents, drownings and other deaths are actually suicides. I don't know whether people realise that approximately 70,000 people attempt suicide each year, but thankfully most people survive it."
I'm in Lucan having tea at the home of Joan Freeman (55), founder of Pieta House, the service that helps those who are suicidal or self-harming. Her genial and welcoming husband, Pat, is making tea, Molly the Kerry Blue is enjoying being fussed over, and two of Joan and Pat's beautiful daughters, Marie and Siobhan, have popped in.
That they're a very close and connected family is evident, and all are devoted to Pieta House and its aim of providing a safe haven for people who are feeling suicidal. Those who use the service speak of the warmth and love they experience, and even a visit to the family home is a lovely experience for this particular visitor.
The idea for Pieta House began 11 years ago after Joan lost a much-loved family member to suicide. As former Health Minister Mary Harney pointed out to her early on, it was also important for her and Pieta House that she was seen as a proper professional, which as a qualified psychologist she is.
So while Joan is hugely humble, modest and unwilling to take any credit for the remarkable work she has accomplished and the lives she has saved, her drive and devotion is a testament to the enduring love she has for the person she lost.
"Suicide is a different type of death as you never know why and will always question yourself as to whether you could have prevented it," she says.
"To this day, I am filled with guilt. I was in despair because there I was counselling and helping other people, but I couldn't help her."
At that time, suicide wasn't openly discussed and there were few services available to help those who were in danger.
Joan decided she wanted to set up a place where people could go to receive help and counselling, and the idea for Pieta House was born.
She closed her own counselling business, borrowed €130,000 and opened the first centre in Lucan in 2006, using her home as collateral. The name, incidentally, was inspired by The Pieta, the Michelangelo statue of the Virgin Mary cradling the body of Jesus on her lap after the Crucifixion.
There are now six centres – in Lucan, Tallaght, Finglas, Ballyfermot, Mungret, County Limerick and Roscrea, County Tipperary. A seventh will soon open in Bishopstown, Cork. They have helped thousands of people.
"My husband Pat has been wonderful through it all," she says. "When I asked him about using the house as collateral, he just rallied in and said to go for it. It was actually only released this week.
"He is the real force behind Pieta House as his support allowed me to do what I have done. I think my family have lost me in ways though because my head is always stuck in Pieta House. But they have all been amazing."
Last year, it cost €3m to run the service. Between 10pc and 15pc is of funding is given annually by the Government, while the rest comes from public donations and fundraising.
"I'm humbled by the amazing people I work with and by the people who fundraise or give us money from their pensions and confirmation money," Joan tells me.
Born the sixth of Marie and John Lowe's eight children, Joan lived in Warwickshire in England as a child. Her Irish parents moved there when she was a baby, but never really settled and deeply missed Ireland. The family moved back to Dublin when Joan was 12, and her dad got a job managing his brother's pub, The Sword, on Camden Street.
"England was a pagan country as far as my mother was concerned," she laughs. "She was lovely and was a real matriarch who completely ruled the roost," Joan says of her treasured mother.
"She was the Queen Bee and we all bowed to her, including my father. She passed away last year, aged 92."
Joan describes herself as the rebel in the family growing up, and says that while siblings Francis, Catherine, Margaret, John, Marian, Theresa and Mary were all very good, she was a "brat and trouble-maker". She smoked at 16 and pretended to be going to ceilis when she was actually sneaking away to discos.
She recalls a day when her mum was in hospital and she decided to go and buy something for the family tea. Joan convinced her sisters to help her to push their mother's car out of the driveway and onto the road, then drove in first gear all the way to the shop and back again.
On entering the driveway, she scraped the car off the pillar and, in a panic, pressed the accelerator instead of the brake, causing the car to crash into the wall of the house. She was 16.
"The car was wrecked and the roses were flattened, but when Dad came home all he asked was if I was okay. He had the car fixed before Mum came home and never told her what happened."
Joan's mother encouraged her children to believe that they could do anything, so it is no surprise that several came to prominence.
Joan's sister, Theresa Lowe, is the well-known RTE presenter-turned-barrister, her brother, John, is the Herald's Money Doctor, and Mary is musical director of CORus, provider of fun singing classes for adults.
When she was 22, Joan met her husband Pat, a postmaster in Bluebell, at a fancy-dress 40th party. She had met him before, but presumed that he was married as he was 33. He arrived in as 'Little House on the Fairy' and when she saw this "big, hairy fella" wearing tights and a model house on in his head, she fell for him.
They were married in 1982 and Joan gave up her job in a video production company to mind their four children, Marie (29), Siobhan (28), Aislinne (27) and Martin (25). When she was 28, she saw an ad for a marriage counsellor and applied.
"I thought I knew it all," she laughs. "One of the questions was about contraception and I replied that I should have called each of my children Bill, after the Billings Method, because it never worked." Joan got the job, and went on to obtain psychology primary and master's degrees through the Open University.
Then she became a private counsellor, a position where she often didn't charge clients in financial difficulties. However, she found herself referring anyone who presented with serious mental health issues or suicidal thoughts.
"I am so ashamed of my attitude back then, but I think, like a lot of therapists, I was frightened to deal with it," she admits.
While the warm, gentle Joan feels it is very important for people to talk about suicide, she has strong views around how we handle it. This is seen in Pieta House's new Signs campaign, which urges people to be on the lookout for others displaying symptoms of suicidal behaviour. Signs stands for:
S – Sleep disturbance or deprivation, which interferes with the ability to think clearly.
I – Isolation, where people start isolating themselves, stop engaging with social media, turn off their mobile phones etc.
G – Giving their possessions away. Not everyone does this, but it happens in some cases.
N – No interest in anything and not enjoying things that used to give them pleasure, such as GAA, school or music etc.
S – Speaking the language of suicide, eg, "I don't see the point in being here" or "You would be better off without me".
One thing that terrifies parents is hearing about teenagers who have taken their own lives. While this is a huge concern, Joan urges families not to panic every time their child is in a bad mood because, in reality, such deaths are not a common occurrence in youths.
In 2011, one female and three males up to 15 died by suicide. While this is four deaths too many, of course, Joan has some advice for worried parents.
"What parents and schools need to do is stop dramatising suicide," she says. "When someone dies, the whole school tends to go to the funeral and the person may be eulogised and seen to be very special.
"This may lead other vulnerable young people to think, 'If I die, these people will also be crying for me'. Because their brains are not fully formed until they are 21 or 22, they are too young to understand that suicide is fatal and final.
"So because our children are so susceptible to suggestion, I think it's best to only have a few close friends at the funeral and maybe hold a memorial in the school a year later.
"I don't agree with people going in and talking about suicide in school because you could be almost giving the students an option if they feel vulnerable."
So what should worried parents do if they notice a change in their child's behaviour?
"If your child was physically ill, you'd ask if they were okay, so you have to do the same in cases of emotional distress," she says.
"Talk to them. While I wouldn't ask straight away if they were suicidal, I'd say things like, 'You don't seem yourself' or, 'You seem to be in a bad place'.
"You can progress the conversation to ask if they are thinking of death in ways that are not as direct as that. If they are unwilling to open up, maybe get someone they trust, like an older brother or auntie, to talk to them. If they are feeling suicidal, you must stay very calm as they are already terrified at how they're feeling. Then make a call to us in Pieta House.
"Young people are often dragged here by worried parents, but after their first assessment, they always want to come back."
While she is always humble and reluctant to take the limelight, Joan was delighted to receive a Rehab People of the Year award. She was also thrilled last year to receive an IMAGE Magazine Businesswoman of the Year Award.
The IMAGE Businesswoman of the Year Awards in association with Brown Thomas will be held at 7pm on Tuesday, November 26th, at The Royal Hospital, Kilmainham. Tickets are €95 and available from www.image.ie or by phoning 01 271 9616. For information on Pieta House, please visit www.pieta.ie.