IT’S been a momentous few days for Pieta House founder, Joan Freeman.
At the end of December, the psychologist and Senator left the charity for the prevention of self-harm and suicide which she set up in 2006 in a small premises in Lucan, Co. Dublin.
Fast forward 11 years and Pieta House now has 13 centres nationwide and has helped more than 30,000 people since its humble beginnings.
Now Joan has stepped down to focus her efforts on growing the suicide and self-harm service, Solace House, in New York.
In reality, she began the difficult process of “separating” from Pieta House after stepping down as CEO at the end of 2014. From January, 2015, she was over and back to New York, after having initially been invited by the Irish diaspora to consider bringing the Darkness into Light walk there, and later with a view to setting up a similar suicide and self-harm crisis service in the US city.
Solace House opened its doors at the New York Irish Centre in Queens in September, 2016.
“I was in mourning, I think, when I look back,” she says of stepping down as CEO of Pieta House.
“I’ve been doing my grieving over the last couple of years. When you start something and you watch it develop and grow — to me it was like a child, it’s like a baby... and then you hand it over, that was difficult.”
Since stepping down as CEO, Freeman had been an ambassador for Pieta House, giving talks and delivering expert advise on suicide and self-harm.
But she did not feel sad about cutting the umbilical cord on December 31.
“The word ‘founder’ can never be taken away. People will always ask me how it started. I have always said that someone’s job should never last longer than nine to ten years — that they should look in a different direction because I feel they can become stale and they can’t learn anymore,” says Freeman, adding that she brought Pieta House as far as she could as CEO and it was time for someone new at the helm.
Despite having set-up the organisation, Freeman is adamant that “Pieta couldn’t possibly have happened because of one person.
“What I’m proud of are the people who sacrificed their own careers and took this massive gamble, this massive leap of faith and to come into a service that could have been a disaster.”
“When we borrowed €130,000 and used our home as collatoral when it could have fallen flat... people like my husband Pat allowed that to happen with four teenagers.
“Then there were other people like Cindy O’Connor, who is the chief clinical officer. There was one month we didn’t have money to pay the staff and she went and took her savings and gave it to Pieta House, not knowing if she’d ever get it back again.
“Or the other staff who left really fabulous pensionable jobs and who didn’t have a clue whether they were going to see the end of the year with Pieta.
“That’s why I could never take ownership of this.
“I think Pieta is a very much loved organisation. I think people know very much that there is no hidden agenda with the service and we are there to serve the people — I’m pleased about that and the fact the service is free of charge is also crucial.
“The fact that anyone can make a call for someone who is in distress is also crucial because many therapies require the person who needs therapy to make that phone call and when someone is suicidal or is in that deepest distress, they are not able to make that call.
“I’m so pleased about the ethos about Pieta. I think Ireland should be proud of it.”
For the last year Freeman has been very busy, spending a week of every month in New York.
“You become used to anything. I have a permanent pain in my neck from my head drooping when I’m travelling. I’m fine going, but when I get home it takes 24 hours for me to get myself back to some sort of normality so I tend to try and come home at the weekend.”
Joan adds of her new venture, Solace House: “It’s going absolutely fabulously.”
There are plans in the pipeline to open branches of Solace House in Philidelphia and San Francisco and ultimately to grow the organisation internationally.
“I’m so excited about this next chapter. I can’t believe I’m in this most awesome position that at this stage in my life, that there’s still excitement ahead of me — still new adventures.”
“We made a decision from the beginning that we would never, ever, ever ask for health insurance, which we don’t. The clients we have at the moment... not one of them has health insurance. And they fall into two categories, the undocumented, who can never buy their health insurance, and the Americans who cannot afford health insurance.
“Originally (the service) was to cater for the Irish diaspora but 47% of people who come to us are not Irish.”
Then there is her work as Senator. Freeman was appointed to the Seanad by former Taoiseach Enda Kenny on the recommendation of Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin in May, 2016.
She has since campaigned for improving child mental health services and is Chair of the new Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Future of Mental Health.
“Last year I focused on (and will continue to) focus on mental health services for children (which are in) “an appalling state,” she says.
Freeman says there is a huge need for more GPs with access to ancillary services such as psychiatric nurses, to whom they can refer children and young people, potentially lightening the load on the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS.)
Looking towards this year, there is a new mental health company in the pipeline, targeting the stigma of mental health in the workplace, while Freeman plans to write a book about how Pieta started and the Darkness into Light fundraising walk.
It’s safe to say that Freeman never stops.
After a gruelling work schedule over the past year, she took four days off over the festive season to spend with family, including her husband, three daughters and son, their partners and their three grandchildren, at a rented house at Strangford Lough.
Unsurprisingly, her plans did not involve much of putting her feet up but she hoped to spend at least some time in front of the box.
“As far as relaxing... no... I am the maid for the four days. They think I’m the most neglectful mother because I’m all around the place.
“For the four days over Christmas I have to serve them and cook and clean... I get the greatest pleasure out of it, I really do.”
I read and binge on Netflix. Every Christmas without fail I watch It’s A Wonderful Life with a glass of Baileys and each time I see something different in it.”
“I have watched it for the last 35 years. How sad is that? That’s my treat every Christmas.”