Matthew Hickey remembers sitting on the couch in his Suffolk County living room, alone except for his dog, Jetta, with his NYPD service revolver in his hand and suicide on his mind.
Wracked by depression, alcoholism and other self-destructive behaviors, the undercover detective was on an ever worsening downward spiral.
"‘Who is going to take care of you?’ ” Hickey recalled asking Jetta.
Yet Hickey couldn’t initially summon the courage to seek help. If not for the intervention of a family friend and a police organization, his story might have had a tragic ending.
Now, Hickey, 50, has become the face of the police suicide crisis. He has made a poignant, emotionally raw six-minute video for the NYPD that was unveiled last month in which he talks about his struggle to overcome suicidal thoughts and urges others to seek help without fear. It has been downloaded more than 100,000 times.
The retired detective has become part of the NYPD’s all-out effort to combat a record nine suicides in 2019 among active duty officers. Other departments have been affected, too. On Monday, a Nassau police officer took his own life, according to law enforcement sources close to the investigation.
Hickey, who grew up in Nassau County as the youngest of six children, said he agreed to go public with his story to emphasize to troubled cops that help is available to them and “the answer isn’t at the end of a barrel, not the end of a bottle, not the end of a rope."
NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill said Hickey’s stepping forward for the department was an act of bravery.
“Detective Hickey’s testimonial demonstrates tremendous courage and I am certain that his story — his one-cop-to-another-cop message — will undoubtedly speak to all officers,” O’Neill said in a statement. “It serves as a powerful reminder that reaching out for help, in any of its forms, is never a sign of a weakness. In fact, it’s a sign of incredible strength.”
In the video titled “Overcoming the Stigma of Depression," Hickey recalls in vivid detail how various pressures — some from police work, others more personal — sunk him into depression. Exacerbated by heavy drinking, Hickey, who retired from the NYPD in 2010 and is now handling security at a Long Island hospital, said he got to the point where he thought about different ways to kill himself.
“I would go home at night and cry before I went to bed, and I would wake up crying that I woke up,” he explained in the video.
For the longest time in the years before 9/11 — as the effects of depression and alcohol use wore him down — Hickey admitted he didn’t want to seek help. His problems took an increasing toll on him. In a career working undercover narcotics enforcement and even after he was promoted to detective. Hickey said his life began to unravel from financial, physical and, finally, emotional troubles.
“I was making good money, living a good life, eating good, partying good, spending money on things,” Hickey recalled. “That is what you do when you are on the top of the game, you don’t realize that it could fall out one day and when it falls out, you are not making that money, you are struggling to keep up.”
Eventually, the NYPD placed Hickey on desk duty when he injured his back after jumping out of a police van during an arrest. The adrenaline rush of buy-and-bust drug operations and raids in which Hickey was often the first cop to break down a door was replaced by sedate and relatively boring work. “It wasn’t me, it wasn’t fun for me, desk jobs,” he said.
Hickey said he started drinking heavily to “self medicate” to ease physical pain and to blunt his growing boredom and unease.
“I slowly started having bad days and I started putting those bad days together until they never stopped, “ explained Hickey. “ I fell into a depression — a really bad depression.”
Hickey said he tried to mask his emotions when he was among other cops. While he seemed fine on the outside, Hickey said he was a mess emotionally. Then, on Sept. 9, 2001, just days before Sept. 11, everything changed. After one bout of drinking at a wedding, Hickey seemed ready to take his own life and decided to shoot himself on the deck of his apartment to avoid leaving a gory scene for his loved ones to find.
“I knew I might hurt them if I was to take my own life,” Hickey said. “But my head was telling me it’s the only answer to end the pain.”
After the wedding, Hickey made himself a pitcher of Bacardi and Coke and started dialing family and friends to say one last goodbye. The final call was to Roy Gorddard of Farmingdale, who was the father of a childhood friend and also happened to be a detective sergeant in the Nassau County Police Department.
Alarmed, Gorddard asked '"What is going on with you? Are you going to hurt yourself. ... You're going to kill yourself?"'
“I just started breaking down, crying,” Hickey remembered, adding he told Gorddard, “I can’t do it, I can’t live any more.”
Gorddard rushed to Hickey’s side. Together, they called his union delegate, who directed Hickey to seek help with the Police Organization Providing Peer Assistance.
POPPA is a volunteer organization staffed 24 hours a day by both active duty and retired officers which seeks to assist officers going through psychological problems. Hickey’s first appointment through POPPA for a follow-up was for Sept. 11, 2001.
The terror attacks forced cancellation of the appointment and while Hickey wanted to report for duty to work at Ground Zero, he was told that he couldn’t because he was now on off-duty status.
“I was just devastated,” said Hickey about his sense of powerlessness at a time when the rest of the NYPD being taxed to the limit in the aftermath of the attack. “You feel like you weren’t there when you should have.”
POPPA got Hickey private counseling. The department temporarily took away Hickey’s gun and shield and POPPA helped him throughout his counseling period, which included Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Eventually, Hickey was well enough to return to full duty and was selected to serve in the prestigious hostage negotiation unit. He says he has not touched a drop of alcohol in 17 years.
It was over eight years after he retired that the NYPD approached Hickey to make the video. His experience in hostage negotiation, in which he sometimes dealt with suicidal cops, seemed to be a good fit for the project.
“It was not easy to do,” said Hickey about the making the video, “but I had to.”
The fact that Gorddard, who died in 2017, stepped up and helped him serves as an example of how another person can help someone suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts.
Another tough part for Hickey was disclosing his ordeal to his parents. He finally told them after publicity about the video surfaced in Newsday. But his father and mother have supported him and said they never knew the kind of inner turmoil he was facing, he said.
Police suicides are an urgent matter for the NYPD, O’Neill and his staff. In recent weeks the department and the Office of the Inspector General for the NYPD have concluded that while the department has taken steps to provide internal and external services for officers, they are underused because of the stigma surrounding mental health issues among police. But getting help to officers in need can prove difficult in a job that has traditionally viewed acknowledging the need for aid as a weakness.
Both Hickey and O’Neill agree officers have to realize that there is no shame and no bad consequences for them if they seek help. It is a message Hickey relates to from his own painful experience.
Ninety percent of the 8,000 active and retired police officers in 49 states who responded to a 2018 survey conducted by the Fraternal Order of Police and NBC News on officer wellness said there was a stigma to seeking mental health counseling.
There have been 122 police suicides nationwide this year through early August, according to Blue H.E.L.P., a Massachusetts nonprofit that tracks them. Last year, the group, which concedes its statistics probably are incomplete, recorded 167, which was two less than the 169 in 2017. In 2016, the group recorded 142.
More officers died by suicide last year than the 145 who died in the line of duty, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Fund.
Hickey said his own career rebounded and he went to the elite hostage negotiation unit even after he needed treatment. The NYPD has put a lot of effort into helping cops and doesn’t want to fire people having emotional troubles.
“The job wants you to get help,” said Hickey, whose career with the NYPD spanned more than 20 years. “They want everybody to get the help they need.”
With a second career as a security official in the hospital field, Hickey is enjoying life after the NYPD. He married Jannine, an old high school friend, bought a house, indulged his passion for trucks and motorcycles and is thankful for having a second chance. His story, said Hickey, is a lesson for other cops going through personal torment.
“Whatever you are going through today can eventually be fixed again, you can get your finances back in order, you can get relationships back,” Hickey said. “You can get better. I promise you if you just try and ask for help.”
With Nicole Fuller
How to get help
The NYPD provides a number of services to officers who may be suicidal or facing mental health issues. Those seeking help can call:
POPPA (Police Organization Providing Peer Assistance): 212-298-9111
NYPD Employee Assistance Unit: 646-610-6730
NYPD Chaplain Units: 212-473-2363
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 800-273-8255