Without the support for ‘Darkness Into Light’ walks, Pieta House would struggle to keep its doors open writes Jonathan deBurca Butler.
Under the towering eye of the Wellington Memorial in Dublin’s Phoenix Park, four hundred volunteers gathered in the early morning shadows for Pieta House’s inaugural Darkness into Light event.
They walked five kilometres into the dawn’s light and through their actions drew much-needed attention to suicide and mental health in Ireland.
Since that first event ten years ago, Darkness Into Light has grown from strength to strength and is now an international phenomenon. This coming Saturday well over 200,000 people are expected to take part in 221 venues right across the globe.
In 2018, participants raised €6 million. Since 2009, a total of €30 million has been raised. The money is used to keep the counselling services offered by Pieta House free of charge to people in suicidal crisis, those affected by suicide or people who engage in self-harm.
“Darkness Into Light is keeping the doors open,” says Cora O’Brien, Centre Manager at Pieta House Kerry.
As well as raising much-needed funding, the event raises awareness and breaks down the stigma that for years was associated with issues around suicide, self-harm and mental health.
“I’m involved on the walk in Listowel,” says Cora, “and every walk has its own characteristic. Last year we had what we called the silent mile where we gave people a chance to remember anyone they had lost to suicide.” “Often people who have lost people to suicide don’t know what to say,” she explains.
“And other people don’t know what to say to them. They feel that they can’t talk about their loss because they feel it may not be the same as everyone else’s loss. In simple terms, it reminds people that there is a place that people can come to talk. It has really raised awareness that we, and others I want to stress, are there for you if you are in that dark place.”
Darkness Into Light came about when Pieta House founder and CEO Joan Freeman became aware of a similar walk that takes place in the United States called Out of the Darkness. Joan’s idea of walking into the dawn expresses the transition from despair to hope.
Kieran Brady who joined Pieta House when it opened its doors in 2006 and is now its Director of Funding and Advocacy says that he is not surprised by the growth of the event.
“From day one it captured the imagination of the public,” he says.
“When you think of the unfortunate statistics around suicide and self-harm, a huge amount of people are affected by these. So for me, it wasn’t really surprising that lots of people around the country and more recently internationally came to us to ask how they could help in their communities. We are always delighted when they do and it’s grown organically with our help. Our volunteer committees around the country and our international committees are extraordinary and without them, it wouldn’t happen.”
In 2009 there were 552 recorded suicides in Ireland. Of those deaths 443 were men, 109 were women. Since then the numbers have fluctuated from an appalling peak of 554 suicides at the very height of the recession in 2012 to 399 recorded deaths by suicide in 2016.
Without the work of Pieta House and others, that number would undoubtedly be higher.
There has also been an undoubted willingness, particularly on the part of some celebrities, to talk more openly about mental health.
If there was anything good that came out of that most recent recession, it was a sense that Ireland was finally willing to face issues around mental health.
“The stigma around suicide and self-harm has diminished over the years,” says Kieran.
“More people have come out and spoken about mental health and I think there is a much better understanding that having a mental health issue is just like having a sore arm or a bad tooth in that you have to do something about it.
"Darkness Into Light and events like it have brought people together who have suffered or are suffering or who have lost friends or family as a result of suicide. It has helped to let people know they are not alone and that there thousands of people like themselves out there.”
Kieran is keen to stress that though lots of good work has been done and many lives have been transformed there is still much to do. For him, tackling issues around mental health has to start early with education.
“It’s all about awareness and it really comes down to education,” says Kieran.
“And you start telling the young that when they feel threatened, scared, bullied or when they have an identity crisis that they don’t need to be alone. They can talk to someone and turn what they think is a crisis in their lives into something that is smaller and more manageable.”
In 2017, and as part of their five-year development plan, Pieta House launched their Resilience Academy.
The academy involves a six-week programme that the charity brings to second-year classes in secondary schools around the country. It focuses on issues around bullying and identity in the hope that “they won’t need the services of Pieta House as adults.”
“The aim of the academy is to equip students with the emotional resilience tools around these issues and educate them around resilience,” says Kieran.
“We think that this is something that should be part of the future in every school.”
“All of us struggle in our lives,” says Cora O’Brien.
“There’s no point any of us saying we don’t. And there are times when we struggle a little more. So if someone is able to reach out and ask for help before it gets to the stage where you feel you might want to harm yourself, there are other ways out and that’s where Pieta House comes in.
"We’re here to support you and help you find those other options. We see people coming in here in a very dark a place and in a matter of weeks, we see a change in many of them and the hope they have for their life. They’re coming in and are often not very positive about themselves and together we help them.”
“Pieta House is here,” says Cora. “Please pick up the phone and ring us if you’re struggling.”
Darkness Into Light takes place at various locations across the country on May 11. You can find your nearest venue and register at: www.darknessintolight.ie/venue