THE BLOG
12/10/2015 07:11 BST | Updated 11/10/2016 06:12 BST

Pieta House: Fighting Suicide in New York

One is forever surprised by the random things one hears from people one never would never expect to hear them from. I attended an event in New York University, in which Michael D. Higgins, the President of Ireland, addressed the Faculty of Law, when a lady happened to remark to me, that "Pieta House is opening in New York tomorrow evening, in the New York Irish Center in Queens." I was delightfully surprised. Everyone in Ireland knows about Pieta House. With nine centers across Ireland and a staff of one-hundred and eighty people, Pieta has saved lives by preventing suicides.

My good friend, Daithi De Roiste, an elected representative for Dublin City Council, has been unflinchingly consistent in addressing the rising numbers of people taking their own lives in Ballyfermot and the surrounding areas back home in Dublin. Daithi even conducted a "Bring Ballyfermot to a Halt", back in February 2014, where hundreds walked in collaboration up the long and winding roads of Ballyfermot blocking the traffic to draw attention to what was happening in their community. The walk ended outside Pieta House. I recall while campaigning, Daithi was invited into a resident's house, while me and his girlfriend Amy awaited him outside. Impatient, we wondered and irritated together, speculating what on earth was taking so long, and why he did not answer his phone while still inside the house. Returning to us twenty minutes later, visibly shaken, Daithi told us that the Resident's son took his own life at 16 a few days previous. This is the reality.

It was through Daithi that I originally heard of Joan Freeman, CEO and Founder of Pieta House and of the admirable work she has done. Without any consideration, I knew it to be a priority to attend a mass being said the next evening. In Ireland, some people like to have a Mass said before the opening of a community center.

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Rebecca Skedd of the New York Irish Center with Joan Freeman Copyright: Aaron Vallely

Father Patrick J. Ryan, professor of Religion and Society in Fordham University, led the mass, alongside Father Jim Kelly. Joan spoke after. She was emotionally overwhelmed, infectiously passionate, and quite simply, lovely. It was after reviewing an invitation by the New York Irish Center, to collaborate and share their building in Queens in New York, alongside its demographic and the financial considerations, that Joan decided it was time the community in New York were included within the services of Pieta House. I spoke to Joan, and she kindly gave me a tour of the renovated building. There is a separate entrance, a lift, and the reception downstairs is welcoming and warm. One then, on entering the reception, awaits very shortly, as a therapist comes downstairs and accompanies one upstairs, where there are two rooms both beautifully decorated and mindful exactly of the kind of atmosphere one would want inside an invitation. It welcomes.

I went back the next day, on her invitation, to speak to Joan, and we had lunch together. Joan explained that the service is for the people. It is service funded for and by the local community. "It is their service", Joan declared. There was a club for seniors happening that morning and I spoke to many of them, who were really joyful and very receptive to its opening there. Offering to hand out leaflets in their local church and spread, as it were, the word. Joan explained to me that most people who take their lives rarely have a bad mental wellbeing history. That is largely a myth, she pointed out. She also spoke about Cathriona White, a young make-up artist who had taken her own life a few days previously. Joan was clearly effected by this, and offered me her own story. That she lost her sister to suicide and that inspired her to make a difference. And make a difference she has, and is continuing to. Pieta House is a life-saving and free-of-charge service that is growing and growing, year by year.

Writing recently, Joan revealed of the origins of Pieta:

"In 2006 – one bright, crisp winter morning in January – Pieta house opened its doors not knowing what was going to happen, how we were going to be received, and, more importantly, how we were going to survive. I had borrowed €130,000 from a local bank. They would only give me this loan if I gave our home as collateral. I gave it. It was a time when my four children were teenagers, we had one main income – my husband, Pat’s – yet it never dawned on me that the creation of Pieta would compromise the safety or security of my family. It never did."

Joan's husband, Pat, told me about how hard Joan works, how resilient she is, and how generous people have been contributing to the service. Pat did much of the heavy lifting getting the building into shape, and told me of his war against the weeds outside. We also spoke about "Darkness into Light", something my friend Daithi and another friend, Kevin McGarry, attend every year. Over 100,000 Irish people all over Ireland and across the world including New York, Washington, and Chicago, take part in the "Darkness Into Light" walk to help prevent suicide. Everyone walks early in the morning while it is still dark, out into the light which the new morning brings. I myself lost a best friend to suicide, and then three years later, his mother also took her own life. The whole community of Palmerstown were affected by that loss. It also showed me the power of community, and his father ever since has been an inspiration to all of us that know him. An exemplar of dignity and integrity. Even as I write this I weep reflecting on it. This is tougher to write about than I had predicted it to be. I turn over in my mind, of how fortunate I am to have the friends I have, and love them, so very dearly. Meeting up with one of my closest friends, John, for the first time here in New York last night, was, quite frankly, and somewhat unexpectedly, moving. "Friends," a well-known wise old Irish Poet once told me, "are the kind of people who put up with us when we can't put up with ourselves."

Pieta House started with a staff of four in a small Dublin office. Now 180 people work for the organization throughout Ireland, counselling people of all ages and backgrounds. Pieta House has arrived in New York and is open to everyone. While me and Pat were talking, Joan told us that they had their first visitor. They were only open a day and they were changing lives. Spread the word, Pieta has arrived.