(INSIDE EDITION) - “Out of every darkness, something light comes.”
That’s the motto Joan Freeman has carried with her for years, holding it close at difficult times and allowing it to strengthen her resolve to raise awareness about and combat suicide.
First, she had her sights set on Ireland, her homeland and where she worked as a psychologist at a time when very few people openly discussed mental health.
“I had my own practice in Ireland helping people, not a big thing at all," she told InsideEdition.com. "It was a very comfortable little practice; I would work the hours I wanted to work and work with people I wanted to work with. In Ireland at the time, people would never speak about suicide."
She added: "We had a very bad attitude with suicide; we saw it as a medical issue. If anyone was suicidal, we’d advise them to go immediately to their doctor or their emergency room.”
There was a lack of compassion for those who needed it most, and it took a personal loss to make Freeman see that, she said.
“My sister, a beloved sister of mine, took her life,” Freeman said. “From that experience, it became pretty obvious to me we needed a compassionate, loving, supportive service that would help carry people through difficult, dark times in their own lives."
There was nothing of the sort established in the country at the time, so Freeman created it herself.
In 2006, she founded Pieta House, a center for prevention of suicide and self-harm.
“When I look back at that time, of course Pieta was created out of that terrible darkness, out of the shame [and] guilt for not being there for her,” she said. “It was one of the darkest times of my life. I suppose Pieta became a soothing balm that allowed my own wounds to heal.”
Those in need have one-on-one sessions with qualified therapists, as often as every day, at whatever time is most convenient, until their mental state has improved. The service is free of charge and it’s completely confidential.
“We offer 15 sessions to people, and usually by the eighth or tenth service, they’re through the darkness,” Freeman said. “We would see them one-to-one, twice a week at the beginning as the minimum. If they’re in acute distress, we would see them every single day, including Saturday and Sunday.”
Pieta House would go on to provide a much-needed service for a people not known for talking about their emotions and feelings.
“Ireland is cloaked in secrets, and suicide would’ve been one of them,” Freeman said. “The very first year we saw 72 people, and that’s amazing really.”
With 10 centers across Ireland, a staff of 180 last year saw more than 6,000 people ranging in age from 5 to their 80s, Freeman said. In its nine years, Pieta House has helped 17,000 people.
After seeing her passion realized at home, Freeman saw the need for such a service was not unique to Ireland, speaking to Irish expats in America who said there was a real need in the States.
In collaboration with the New York Irish Center, Pieta House opened its first center in Long Island City in September 2015.
“Americans, they find the whole thing extraordinary on two levels,” she said. “They cannot believe the services are free of charge. They cannot believe we don’t even look for insurance. And they find it extraordinary that we have a fearless model — we look at suicide right on; we’re not afraid someone’s going to be a danger to the therapist. We don’t believe that for a minute; we see someone who’s broken.”
What began as a pilot program has exploded, and now Freeman is ready to extend Pieta House’s reach to wherever it’s needed in the States.
“I suppose in the beginning we thought [only of the Irish], but how stupid is that? We could never turn anyone away. We’re in America, and America is full of nationalities and the most wonderful part of America is the diversity,” she said. “If we can apply our service... if it works, it will work anywhere."
Stressing that Pieta House will only establish a center where one has been requested, Freeman said she’s confident Americans will see the value in the service.
“We will train therapists in their states, in their community, the Pieta House way. We’ll provide them with clinical supervision, [show] how to mind people who are in crisis, ensure they keep to the Pieta model,” she said.
She stressed that people in need of help will never pay to be seen and that their sessions are completely confidential.
“We do not keep notes; we keep memory aides only,” she said, explaining that therapists might write down key words to remember a patient’s history, but never a complete description of their session. “We see this as a brief time in a person’s life. This is not enduring and it’s not an episode that disables them for the rest of their lives.”
The ushering in of Pieta House into the U.S. comes as suicide rates surged last year to the highest levels in nearly 30 years, a federal data analysis found.
For every 100,000 people in the U.S., about 13 die of suicide, the highest rates the country has seen since 1986, according to the Centers for Disease Country and Prevention.
“In Ireland, the whole stigma around mental health has changed dramatically,” Freeman said. “America seems to be where Ireland once was. There is still a huge fear about admitting you’re suicidal. There’s a very difficult and harsh reaction at this moment … we’re giving people permission to talk about it.
“Americans have done so much for the Irish, and we would never forget that. Here’s our way of saying ‘here you go. Here’s something to say thank you.’”
Helping usher in Pieta House’s service in the states is Darkness Into Light, the organization’s flagship walk and run that raises awareness to its cause and raises funds to run and establish its centers.
On Saturday, people across the world will roll out of bed well before the sun rises, put on sneakers and clothes warm enough to combat the early morning chill, and prepare to run and walk in honor of those close to their hearts who are no longer here.
“It starts at 4 in the morning when it’s still dark — it’s very symbolic of the work we do in Pieta House; we bring people from the dark into light,” Freeman said. “Research has showed how the well-being of a person is raised dramatically after they complete the walk, particularly for people who have lost someone through suicide. They’re achieving something, healing, preventing this from happening to others. It’s more than a walk. It’s a movement and it’s a healing process.”
The event will take place in hundreds of locations across Ireland, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, the Middle East, Asia and in Boston, Philadelphia, Austin, Chicago, Pittsburgh, San Diego, San Francisco, and in New York in the Bronx and in Queens.
“It’s creating the pathways into these states,” she said. “We won’t go anywhere (in the U.S.) unless we’re invited. We don’t have the right to. Darkness Into Light is a way of gaining interest and curiosity in those spaces.”
Hundreds of thousands are expected to participate, Freeman said, estimating about 150,000 in Ireland alone.
“I’m so excited,” she said. “People are getting it. And the bigger it gets, it’s going to be even more meaningful.”
To find a Darkness Into Light walk near you, visit Pieta House’s website here.