- 09 Oct 18
Hot Press has partnered with Lyons Tea and with the suicide prevention and self-harm crisis charity Pieta House for the campaign “Now We’re Talking”. Here, ahead of ‘Now We’re Talking’: the Townhall Gathering on World Mental Health Day, we talk to the CEO of Pieta House, Brian Higgins, about the incredible work that the organisation does – and the challenges facing what has become an essential service in Ireland.
Pieta House is there for people 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. And the service provided by the suicide and self-harm crisis agency is completely free of charge, at the point of use. Brian Higgins (pictured above) heads the organisation, which has 15 centres throughout the country, and hundreds of trained therapists. He wants to stress this point above everything else. If you are going through a mental health crisis, then Pieta House is there for you. There are no restrictions. No one will be asking ‘Where’s the cash?’
That is why the support of Lyons Tea, in raising money for the charity, is so important.
To date, Pieta House has helped over 40,000 people, who were in suicidal distress or engaging in self-harm. But Brian is clear about one thing: the message needs to be constantly reinforced and shared. With the pressures, problems and anxieties that are such an ineascapable aspect of modern life, the mental health issues that lead to self-harm and suicide ideation are not going to go away.
“When we started in 2006, it was an immediate crisis response for people who were dying by suicide,” Brian explains, talking about the origins of Pieta House. “We started with a therapy centre in Lucan and for the first 10 years of our existence we focused on what we would call ‘intervention works’ – that is, working with people who are actively suicidal or people who actively engage in self-harm. But over the years we’ve tried to move further into prevention, which means equipping people with some of the softer skills that help avoid the suicidal ideation happening in the first place. That involved a lot of things, such as challenging stigma and moving into a position where we’re talking about issues that we’re not always comfortable talking about.”
Pieta House also stepped in to take on the work that Console did after they collapsed in 2016.
“Since then we’ve offered post-bereavement care work,” Brian explains. “That’s therapy working with families and friends who have been bereaved by suicide. We’ve grown over the 12 years, which is indicative of the need in Ireland. And while we have 15 centres nationwide, a 24/7 helpline 1800-247-247 that is staffed by fully qualified counsellors and over 240 psychotherapists, we’re still only reaching about 60% of the population. There’s a huge piece of work to be done continuing to serve that 60% of the population – but also reaching out to the other 40% as well.”
Pieta House’s service is straightforward and user-friendly.
“The most important thing is that you can refer yourself to Pieta House,” Brian acknowledges. “You don’t need to go through a doctor, or an emergency room. You don’t need to go through counsellors. If you are concerned for somebody else, or speaking on behalf of somebody else, you can ring, even if it’s just for advice. The other important message here is that it is, and always will be, free. You’ll never have to pay a penny.”
HIGH SUICIDE BRACKET
So how does it work in practice? Brian sets things out very clearly.
“We have our 24/7 helpline that’s staffed by fully qualified counsellors,” he says. “They’ll do a very brief, very professional assessment on the phone to determine, ‘Is it Pieta you need? How can we direct you towards the help you need?’ Even if the issue isn’t what Pieta House covers, we will direct people towards the organisations that can help them.
“They’ll ask a few questions to ascertain whether it’s the right service, then they’ll ask you to come in for an initial assessment. The assessment normally lasts an hour, with the therapist, who will ask questions about how you’re feeling. At that point, you’ll come in to therapy and probably be with us for about 12 one-hour sessions.
“The process feels reallly un-clinical. These centres aren’t like hospital – we try to make them comfortable, safe spaces to be. The most important thing, again, is that there are no barriers to coming in or to contacting us.”
The number of people who have come into contact with Pieta House has increased year after year. Is that reflective of a mental health crisis in Ireland, or is it that more people opening up about these issues?
“It’s a bit of both,” Brian reflects. “If you open up any newspaper, you’ll know that there is a crisis in terms of the services that we’re able to offer. We know that all the necessary mental health services are not open 24 hours a day. We know that the current resources in Ireland are not adequate to the need that is there. Now, ‘not adequate’ and ‘not good’ are two totally different things. The services are excellent, but there aren’t enough.
“Then in terms of whether it’s indicative of people seeking support? I think it is. Services are pressured because more people feel comfortable accessing them. That should be welcomed. Suicide numbers, thankfully, are going down – even if just marginally. So the more people accessing services, the less people die. That’s the right formula, we just need to adequately support that formula.”
Are there particular pressures facing young people, especially in relation to social media, peer pressure, bullying?
“About 40% of all of our clients are under 18,” says Brian. “When you go to under 25 or under 30, you’re into probably over 60-70% of all the people who use our services. I admire young people for the way they’ll engage with our services. When you listen to all this crap about the ‘snowflake generation’ – that young people want to be mothered and cuddled – that’s nonsense.
“This is a generation that has had important conversations, that has lived through national dialogues and debates on major issues such as ‘what is equality?’ and ‘what are our rights?’ They have engaged in a way that has helped them understand others and themselves. So they’re not weak – they may be stronger than any other previous generation.
“Now, they do have additional pressures in terms of social media and how to engage with it. We all do. Anyone who is on Twitter or Instagram or Facebook has the same kind of news, and we all have pressures related to what’s cool and how you should look and so on. But I honestly think young people are more in tune as to what their baseline is, and if they dip below, that they’re more likely to seek help. If you look at the change that we have seen in Ireland in the last three years, and the power of young people, it’s incredible. What I’d like to see is that same power, and ability to engage, being used to tackle other issues.
“The people most likely to die by suicide are men between the age of 35 and 55. So you have young people who do have pressures, but in many cases they also have better awareness. Whereas, there is a cohort of 35-55 year old men – who are in that high suicide bracket – who aren’t really on Twitter or Facebook. They maybe haven’t had the same engagement with these issues as young people. Our challenge is reaching out to them.”
GETTING THE LANGUAGE RIGHT
Pieta House frequently run campaigns that aim to reach every part of society, to get the widest possible community of people active, and talking. We all know how effective tea can be as a means of starting a conversation, even the most difficult ones. Which is why, for the past three years, Lyons have been committed to ending the stigma that is too often attached to mental health issues in Ireland, through their partnership with Pieta House.
“There’s a particular problem with isolation in rural areas,” Brian reflect. “We all know what it’s like to be lonely. But to be almost permanently lonely – which some people in rural communities face – is another issue. We need to let people who are isolated, or infirm, know they’re not a burden.”
Which is one the reasons why World Mental Health Day is so important. The aim of the Now We’re Talking: The Town Hall Gathering on October 10 is to make exactly that kind of statement: those with mental health issues are not a burden either. What matters is that we can intervene effectively, and at the right time.
“Suicide doesn’t care whether you’re old or young or rich or poor,” Brian adds. “It is something that impacts on every community – and can impact on any individual.”
Like all of the trained specialists at Pieta House, Brian is careful about how he talks about suicide. For example, he doesn’t preface it with the word ‘commit’.
“The default position for speaking about suicide has been to use the term ‘commit suicide’. There’s two reasons way this has been adopted in an Irish context and why it’s a problem. The first is that suicide was a crime until 1993. The second is that it was a mortal sin in the Catholic Church and in most other churches. This meant that when you ‘commit’ a crime and when you ‘commit’ a sin, you know that it’s ‘wrong’, but you deliberately undertake the act. And that’s precisely why suicide was so stigmatised. People didn’t want to even mention their loved ones dying of suicide. It was seen as a stain on a person’s moral character. So should we be correcting people using the word ‘committed’? Yeah, I think it’s important.”
Changing the terminology might seem like a small thing, but it signals the need for compassion, which underpins Pieta House’s ethos. Brian stresses that dealing with social issues related to race, sexuality, gender and religion has a role to play in making people feel accepted, which then reduces suicidal ideation and self-harm. One of the strengths of Pieta House is that they are unafraid to confront these issues.
As ever though, the challenge is maintaining the effectiveness of Pieta House’s services – which always require funding – and getting the message out to everyone who needs it. To do this, Pieta House will continue to partner with Lyons tea and media like Hot Press until everyone in Ireland knows that this service is there for them, whenever they need it. Let’s make sure they get the help they need. Let’s keep reaching out. The phrase ‘Now We’re Talking’ really is an apposite one.
Pieta House will take over packs of Lyons 80’s Original during the month of October, to raise funds and encourage people to open up and talk about their mental health. To contact Pieta House, call their free helpline 1800 247 247 or text HELP to 51444. You can contact individual Pieta House centres by going to pietahouse.ie/contact-us.