Nonprofit Pieta House's 'Darkness Into Light' walk / run takes place each May in scores of locations in Ireland, in New York City and a growing number of other venues outside Ireland. The mission: to highlight depression among the Irish, wherever they are residing. See dil.pieta.ie for details on locations and how to sign up.
Here, Caroline O'Connell, chairwoman of the Bringing Pieta to New York committee, explains why a support service is needed for the Irish community in New York, while, further down, Sharon Whelton, secretary of Western Canada GAA Board, shares how and why she has set up the first 'Darkness Into Light' event in Calgary, Canada.
(This article was originally published May 7, 2015, in The Irish Times as part of the newspaper's 'Generation Emigration Forum,' and is published here with the newspaper's permission.)
Caroline O’Connell: ‘They come to a huge city and are completely disconnected from the community they were familiar with. Some never settle’
The Irish community in New York lost two people to suicide in the past two weeks. One was an Irish woman in her 60s, whose daughter also died by suicide three months previously. Another Irish immigrant took his own life the same weekend, within days of his mother dying from cancer.
In New York, more people die by suicide than in car accidents. It is a frightening and heartbreaking statistic.
Loneliness and isolation are feelings that almost every immigrant can identify with. New York is a huge city, and the cultural difference between here and Ireland can be shocking, especially for people from rural areas. They come out to a huge city and are completely disconnected from the community they were familiar with. Some never settle fully.
Even if a person has friends or a partner here with them, when something goes wrong, not having family around can make things even harder. Family is a support system we take for granted at home, with mum and dad and our aunts and uncles close by.
Isolation is a leading factor in depression, and the undocumented Irish are particularly at risk. They may have been here for many years, got married and had children, but when a tragic event like the death of a parent or the illness of an ageing relative occurs in Ireland, they face a big decision: to stay where they are; or go home and risk not being allowed to re-enter the US. It is a huge stress.
They also have no access to health insurance, another significant stress factor, and a huge impediment to seeking help if they are experiencing mental health issues.
I understand these fears, as I was undocumented myself for several years after arriving here in the mid-1980s.
I was living here in New York when I got the call nine years ago to say my cousin had taken his own life at 24 years of age. I flew home to Cork straight away. It devastated our family, rocked us to the core. I don’t think family ever get over that shock. For any parent to lose their child to suicide is the most tragic heartache.
Thankfully in Ireland now, suicide is a topic that is getting easier to talk about, thanks to the efforts of Pieta House, the suicide prevention charity set up by Joan Freeman. Suicide is not swept under the rug anymore. We need to do the same thing in New York now, to raise awareness and lift the stigma around mental health and suicide.
This is why we are working to set up a Pieta House service for the Irish community here in New York. The Department of Foreign Affairs has provided €70,000 in funding, and we are hoping to open two treatment rooms at the New York Irish Center in Queens in the autumn. We are also hoping to work with the other two Irish centres here, the Aisling Center in Yonkers and the Emerald Isle Immigration Center in the Bronx, to roll out an awareness programme about mental health and suicide prevention.
Since we announced our plans, so many people have said to me “I don’t know what I can do but I want to help”. The Irish Business Organization in New York appointed Pieta House as their sole beneficiary for their annual fundraiser this year. It is that kind of support that we are seeing across the board here in the US. Pieta House will be as successful here as it is in Ireland, because there is tremendous support for it, and a tremendous need for it. (In conversation with Ciara Kenny)
Sharon Whelton: ‘It’s so refreshing to see so many people supporting Pieta House here in Calgary’
I never got the chance to be a part of a Darkness into Light walk in Ireland, as I had moved to Calgary in Canada before a walk was established in my home town of Clonakilty in Co Cork.
When I heard last year that the walk to raise awareness about suicide and self harm was being held outside Ireland for the first time, in London and Sydney, I thought it would be great to set one up in Calgary too. I put the idea out there in the Irish in Calgary Facebook group, and it proved popular.
I applied for a permit, which was granted in March, and set up a committee of 15 volunteers. The weeks since have been busy but I know the hard work and stress will be worth it on Saturday morning. My office is currently a sea of yellow, the Pieta House colour, which is a great conversation starter.
It’s so refreshing to see so many people supporting Pieta House here in Calgary. More than 130 people have registered so far. We partnered with Distress Centre Calgary which enables Calgarians to have a local organisation that they can support also.
The iconic Calgary Tower will be turning yellow in the early hours of Saturday morning to support our event, and will stay yellow for the entire day, and a major radio station in the city has offered to be our radio sponsor. The City of Calgary local authority has also been hugely supportive.
To see a big group of people proudly wearing the yellow Pieta House shirts so far from Ireland will be worth every minute of work that has been put into this inaugural walk here in Calgary.