From Princes William and Harry to
Irish Senator Joan Freeman,
activists are speaking out on the
world’s mental health crisis

Princes William and Harry this week publicly discussed for the first time the anxiety, depression and rage they have experienced for two decades since the August 31, 1997, death of their mother, Princess Diana. As the world watched them grow up, we now know, they were suffering alone.

And while the British Royals lead lives far different from the rest of us, people with mental illness do have one thing in common with the princes — a perennial sense of isolation that can have dire consequences, from low self-esteem and broken relationships to self-harm and suicide. And like the princes, people who seek help can emerge from darkness into light.

And thank goodness for William and Harry, and Lady Gaga, and Bruce Springsteen, and many other celebrities who have come forward with their tales of mental illness. Yet for more than 10 years, one woman has been crusading all along, building a suicide-prevention charity one therapist and one patient at a time.

Irish psychologist Joan Freeman founded Pieta House in Dublin in 2006. Since its founding, the charity has provided therapeutic services across the country to more than 25,000 people who have threatened self-harm or suicide. Each patient receives one-on-one counseling, a total of 15 sessions in all, at no charge.

The Irish humanitarian named the organization after Pietà (Mercy), Michelangelo’s marble sculpture of Mary holding the bruised and broken body of Jesus after the crucifixion. It is the only sculpture he signed.

For her pioneering work in mental health, now a national priority for the Irish government, Joan was appointed in May 2016 to the Seanad Éireann (Irish Senate). She donates her €65,000 salary to Pieta House.

With help from Irish organizations in America, Joan is also bringing her therapeutic approach to New Yorkers. She opened Pieta’s first U.S. operation in September 2015 at the New York Irish Center in Queens, and has long-term plans to offer Pieta House services across the country.

Of the 100 New Yorkers receiving free therapy in the last six months, 50% are Irish immigrants and 50% represent the city’s diverse population. They come for many reasons, from break-ups and financial problems to bereavement. Men and women under 29 years old represent nearly half of Pieta’s patients, regardless of national origin. The high level of suffering among the city’s youth reflects a larger trend — suicide is the leading cause of death for people between 15–29 globally.

Whatever the Pace, Live

As part of her mission to provide solace, Joan in 2009 launched the Darkness into Light 5K in Ireland. With the help of Irish volunteers, it has since spread to Northern Ireland, England, Wales, Denmark, Iceland, Canada, the U.S., United Arab Emirates, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, and Korea.

“Whether you are about to step out from a little village in the West of Ireland or you’re going to begin your walk in New York City, you and thousands and thousands of people around the world are sharing this journey together,” she said in a video kicking off Darkness into Light 2015. “And you know what else? You’re also leading the fight against suicide.”

As the Irish say, “The road is shorter when it is shared.” Here’s how to join us for Darkness into Light 2017.

U.S. — Sign up for the event in New York (Queens and The Bronx), Austin, Boston, Chicago (Oak Forest), Pittsburg, Philadelphia, San Diego or San Francisco at https://pietahouse.eventgrid.com.

INTERNATIONAL — Sign up for the 5K in Europe, the Middle East or Asia at www.pietahouse.ie.

A corporate communications professional, Sally O’Dowd is also a free-speech advocate, essayist and poet. Her poetry series Grilled Cheese Sandwiches and Other Tales of Love and Loss is here on Medium and on www.sallyodowd.com.

[Please note: Pieta House in Ireland and Pieta House New York are distinct charities. Operating independently from the Dublin organization, PHNY is a U.S. tax-exempt charity with 501©(3) status.]

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