As an NYPD undercover narcotics detective, Matt Hickey had a job he loved. But over time, injuries and financial pressures became too much for him. Hickey, a Suffolk County resident who had joined the NYPD in April 1990, never shared his problems with anyone — doing so, he feared, might hurt is career.
Instead, Hickey saw killing himself as his only way out. The suicidal thoughts became so strong that Hickey started calling his friends and family to give what amounted to a goodbye speech.
One of those calls probably saved Hickey's life. His best friend's father, a detective sergeant in the Nassau police department, heard the pain in Hickey's voice and urged him to get help, so he did.
Hickey's battle with depression, suicidal thoughts and his quest to improve his mental health is featured in a video released Tuesday by the NYPD as the department searches for ways to stem an alarming increase this year in officers taking their own lives.
The video's release coincided with World Suicide Prevention Day and came as NYPD Commissioner James P. O’Neill on Tuesday announced a significant shift in department policy to encourage emotionally troubled cops to seek treatment.
In a statement directed at NYPD officers, nine of whom have died by suicide so far in 2019, O'Neill pointed to Hickey as living proof that there is life-changing and lifesaving help for officers willing to accept it.
“He’s alive today and able to tell you his story for one reason: He needed help, and he reached out. And he wants you to do the same,” O’Neill said.
To boost the likelihood of troubled cops coming forward, O'Neill announced Tuesday that the NYPD will no longer take away a police officer's shield for psychological or other health reasons.
Under previous NYPD policy, when cops surrendered their service weapons for nondisciplinary reasons, the shield, a basic symbol of membership in the police force, also had to be turned in.
Whenever he'd be on the job, Hickey stayed silent about the psychological turmoil that made living increasingly unbearable, he says in the video, which runs slightly more than five minutes.
“Every day I went to work. I hid it from everybody how bad I was doing,” Hickey says. “I would go home and cry when I went to bed and I wake up crying that I woke up. At work nobody knew what was going on because I didn’t share it with anybody. I was afraid to share it with anybody because of that stigma: If you tell somebody, you are going to lose your job.”
Hickey made the phone calls to the people who knew him best after telling himself living another day was not worth it. His conversation with the Nassau cop spurred him to reconsider.
“What are you doing?” the detective asked with alarm, Hickey recalls in the video. “ ‘Do you want to hurt yourself?' ”
In response to the question, Hickey broke down and the detective strongly encouraged him to reach out for assistance.
With help from Police Organization Providing Peer Assistance — POPPA — Hickey went on to fight his depression and retire from the department in April 2010. POPPA is an organization staffed with NYPD volunteers and focused on helping cops.
"We are dedicated to preventing and reducing Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), marital problems, substance abuse and suicide," says a statement on the organization's website.
Ironically, Hickey’s depression kept him out of the fray on Sept. 11, 2001. He was supposed to travel to the city for an appointment with POPPA but they called to cancel, telling him to turn on the television. Hickey saw the second plane go into the World Trade Center. He felt powerless.
But Hickey’s police colleagues told him not to feel guilty about being unable to rush to Ground Zero. The important thing, they said, was for Hickey to get better.