LISHEENS House in Skibbereen is a community-based mental health charity that offers free counselling, training, and support for those in mental health crisis.
The idea of free counselling for people seeking help and support was conceived by Noreen Murphy from Kealkill, West Cork, when she lost her husband, Donal, to suicide in September 2007.
This year Noreen was the recipient of the Graham Norton Inspiring Women in Business Award.
“Graham lives near me in Bantry,” says Noreen. “I often see him out and about. You could say he’s my neighbour!”
Noreen understands Christmas and New Year can be a trying time for people. “It can be isolating and lonely as well as stressful,” says Noreen. “Recently I met a lady who lost her husband after 35 years and she was finding it hard to face into Christmas and New Year alone.
“Many people are stressed with different pressures upon them.”
Noreen knows what it is like to lose a loved one. She also knew love in her family home.
“I had thought of opening the centre at home in Kealkill,” says Noreen. “But it is hard to access and a bit out of the way, so Skibbereen is ideal.
“Mick, the manager of Lisheens House, and I, are hoping to replicate the idea in all West Cork towns. We recently opened a new store selling second-hand furniture and bric-a–brac in Clonakilty.
“We don’t receive any State funding so we rely totally on donations and fund-raising to deliver our services. The generosity of the people of West Cork and Cork County is amazing.”
The fact that Noreen kept the name of her own homestead, Lisheens House, must indicate that once upon a time she knew happiness there?
“Yes, I did,” says Noreen. “I met Donal in 1992 on his 24th birthday. He was a fine man; a great family man and a great worker. He worked in the construction industry and he commuted to Cork city every day. His employers thought a lot of him.
“We were both working and living busy lives. Work was plenty and our family were healthy. Donal built Lisheens House; and for a time we were happy there with the three boys, James, Tony and John.
“Donal played football and was involved in the local GAA.”
But storm clouds were gathering; something was badly wrong.
“Two years before Donal died he became paranoid,” says Noreen. “He was unable to sleep and he was sweating a lot. He seemed to be panicked and he wept constantly. He behaved erratically and he could see no beauty in anything. When I tried to talk to him he put his hands over his ears. He said he’d rather put a gun to his head than talk about it. I was distraught and did not know where to turn.”
Noreen and Mick both agree that men find it more difficult than women to open up and confide in someone.
“And even though things are changing stigma-wise, the stigma of mental health is more compounded in rural Ireland,” says Mick, who has lost three nephews to suicide. “Often, many people are related in a small community and this prevents people, especially men, from addressing mental health issues. Being talked about must be avoided at all costs. The attitude is that men are the bread winners and they must show outward strength and not weakness. You must keep it to yourself.”
Noreen showed strength when she endeavoured to keep the household together amid the turmoil of Donal’s illness.
“The strain did take a huge toll on my own health,” says Noreen. “I was never sick, I never had a cold; now I was constantly on antibiotics and I got very thin.”
And she was constantly on the alert. Donal had threatened to kill himself and take the children with him.
“My main worry was that there was no specific protection for the children,” says Noreen. “We even had an escape route planned if things got really bad. I knew Donal was going to kill himself but there was nothing I could do. I found things hard. But the children found the situation even harder. They were constantly on edge.”
Noreen sought help from the GP and medical services. “Donal refused to go to the doctor. So I went,” she says. “The doctor said if Donal couldn’t help himself, then there was little that he could do. I got a similar reaction from the mental health services. I was advised to go to the gardaí, and one expert suggested I go down the divorce route and get on with my own life.”
Noreen says that mental health facilities often prove too difficult for people suffering from depression to navigate.
“I had no experience when I thought of opening Lisheens House, but I had the experience of living with someone with acute depression and the awful aftermath of suicide and the legacy that it leaves in its wake,” says Noreen.
“It is like a mind-blowing tsunami. Donal could find no peace. But now, maybe other people can.”
The day that Noreen had been dreading finally arrived and with it came a weird sense of relief from the fall-out of the constant highs and lows that Donal suffered.
“He had tried to kill himself the year before,” says Noreen sadly. “Now he had succeeded. It was very hard and the boys did not cope very well.
“It’s funny, but had Donal died in an accident or of a stroke, or from cancer, people would have come flocking to our house with pots of soup and stews. Instead they did not know what to say to us.
“There was a sense of blame and shame. One of my sons said he didn’t like the way people treated him now, as if he was different.”
Noreen found herself a widow at the age of 41. She says she had already gone through the motions of trauma and mourning before Donal’s death, adding: “It was a living hell.”
She had held the family together through the ravages of the storm that had wreaked havoc on their lives. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, she emerged scathed but not defeated.
“It was like we were trying to survive up until he died,” says Noreen.
Now the foursome had to survive afterwards. “The boys got counselling,” says Noreen. “There seemed nothing in place for under 18s. And if there was anything,there was a wait of up to 18 months. So I paid €50-€60 a go. And it seemed like I drove for miles and miles to get to places.”
Life goes on. And it is short.
“Yes, that is one thing I discovered. Life is short,” says Noreen.
She also discovered something else.
“Everyone is entitled to live their lives.”
And she tried. She really tried.
“I met Mick while I was working in Dunmanway. We got talking,” says Noreen.
“The fact that I had lost three nephews to suicide wasn’t the all consuming thing that we had in common,” says Mick. “But it was part and parcel of our conversation. I was always interested in the aspects of suicide affecting people. You read about it every day in the papers. We both asked ourselves instead of focusing on the inadequacies in the mental health system that we had encountered; what could we do?”
Both Noreen and Mick were aware of Pieta House and the services that it offered.
“We looked at that as a model, but on a smaller scale. We had to cut our cloth according to our measure.”
The couple decided on a satellite service. A charity shop would be opened to help fund the accredited counsellors who had agreed to come on board.
“And lots of volunteers came forward to take the telephone calls at the centre,” says Noreen.
“Each caller is offered an appointment in their area within hours. We extended the service with face-to-face counselling during opening hours.”
Mick says that early stage intervention can play a crucial part in aiding people with mental health problems.
“Sometimes, getting help to them before suicidal thoughts arise can make all the difference. It’s like getting the scratch before the itch.”
Now Noreen and Mick are seeing a shift in how people view depression and its consequences.
“It’s not a taboo subject any more. There is a slight change on how people view mental health. When we are fund-raising donors often say,we don’t give to anything, but we give to that.”
Noreen knows only too well that a sanctuary in times of trouble is a Godsend. “I wanted somewhere homely; a safe haven,” she says. “Donal needed a place to befriend him and allow him to talk. The fallout from suicide is savage. It generates horror, anger, shame confusion and guilt.”
The boys have weathered the storm too and they are getting on with their lives.
“The true sin is if Donal lost his life in vain,” says Noreen.
But he didn’t.
Lisheens House lives on.
- Lisheens House, centre and shop, with art, music and book library, Ilen Street, Skibbereen-028-51950.
- New store open on McCurtain Hill, Clonakilty. 087-7606226. A third charity shop is on Main Street, Skibbereen.