Bringing the mental health conversation to the Áras

Senator and Presidential candidate, Senator Joan Freeman spoke to PolSoc of her hopes to enable volunteers and continue the conversation on mental health if elected President.

Trinity Politics Society (PolSoc) hosted Irish presidential candidate and founder of Pieta House, Senator Joan Freeman yesterday evening. She was the second presidential candidate of the week who visited PolSoc following their hosting of Sean Gallagher on Tuesday. Opening with some light remarks about what she was expecting, Senator Freeman said that “I didn’t realize what I was coming to this evening in being invited to speak to Trinity Politics Society”.

Acknowledging that her aforementioned expertise in mental health, due to her profession as a qualified psychologist, would lead to some thought-provoking and intelligent discussion on mental health. She said that it was to the credit of the younger generation who had begun destigmatizing mental health in Irish society. “I’ve come to realize in recent years, that I’m not as intelligent as I once thought I was, as the general public, young people, in particular, have begun to educate themselves in the importance of mental health”.

The first half of her speech recounted her early years as a psychologist and juggling her professional life with the responsibilities of being a mother of four children. She openly criticized her closed-mindedness when it came to dealing with patients who were suicidal along with Ireland’s discomfort in addressing mental health issues. “Whenever a patient came to me who were suicidal, I immediately referred them to a GP, because I had this genuine fear for my life, thinking they would be violent. Unfortunately, this was the cultural norm of Ireland for years, people just didn’t talk about mental health issues, it was a taboo subject and a source of shame for family members”.

She said became more experienced, she began to realize that “sending people who were suicidal to A&E was no longer applicable, and that was my primary motivation to setting up Pieta House”. She highlighted the remarkable growth of the organisation “from starting with just myself in one location in Lucan, to today with 15 locations and over 280 staff members”. She also mentioned the success of the annual Darkness into Light annual walk which saw only 480 people show up in its inaugural year and in its ten years since “Over 200,000 people have participated”.

Moving onto why she should be elected President of Ireland, Freeman stated that “Every President has brought their own dimension to the role, and what I would like to bring is a focus on the well-being of the citizens of our country”. Recalling a recent radio interview where a young girl, who has had to seek accommodation in a hotel dreads waking up every morning, Freeman would “bring a focus and investment in our children to give them the support they need”. Stressing that she would seek to ensure that Ireland’s older generations “are not forgotten about and brought back into the community to add their wisdom and experience in tackling the issues this country faces”. Freeman wrapped up her speech by saying that should she be elected “hopefully in seven years time, Ireland will be a more open and accepting country and one that can be an example to the world”.

PolSoc Chair, Micheál Ganley, commenced the round of questions by asking Senator Freeman about an earlier reference in her speech about the divide between Dublin and rural Ireland. He asked how she would aim to make Dublin more aware of the issues outside Ireland’s capital. “The reality is, that it is just not possible to achieve this, everything starts and finishes in Dublin”.

“What rural Ireland needs”, she continued, “is a recognition of its volunteers” for both their charity and community outreach work, adding that “these areas know their respective problems, they have the ability to enact positive change in their communities”. Freeman concluded her answer by proposing a ‘county connection initiative’ in which “volunteers, campaigners, and problem-solvers coordinate together to solve their issues”.

Freeman also took questions from the floor, where one audience member asked her about supporting the Irish language, should she be elected. Having spent her early years in Britain, while her father was a migrant worker, her return to Ireland at the age of twelve limited her opportunities to learn the language, in spite of her efforts, she recalled. She praised the fluency of Irish in her four children through their attending of all-Irish schools. According to Freeman “the President of Ireland should be able to speak Irish, no matter their fluency” and that she “regretted putting it on the backburner for so long”.

Fielding a question from a member of the audience who mentioned that they were the child of two immigrant parents, they asked how she would address the cultural embedment of mental health issues within these groups in Ireland. Acknowledging that she had become the de facto face of mental health discussion in Ireland, she said that she was confident in her ability to encourage a discussion on the subject in all areas of Irish society.

The final question from the audience was whether she would run for President again should she be unsuccessful this time. “No, once is enough”, she said firmly to laughter from those in attendance, “what we need to do now is encourage the young leaders in Irish society to take an active role in politics”.

Cian Mac Lochlainn

Cian Mac Lochlainn is an Economics and Politics student, and a Contributing Writer for Trinity News.