New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYPD officials, hoping to stem a spike in officer suicides, announced Thursday that the department is teaming up with NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital to offer cops free and confidential mental health services.
The Finest Care program will supplement peer counseling, employee assistance programs and other existing mental health services offered to the NYPD’s 36,000 officers, officials said. The mayor, whose father took his own life when de Blasio was 18, said the program is part of a broader effort to erase the stigma of mental illness among police officers.
“A lot of times the biggest challenge for officers is to know it’s OK to need help yourself,” de Blasio said during a news conference in Manhattan Thursday. “You’re always giving help to other people. You sometimes need to help yourself.”
An off-duty police sergeant who died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound earlier this month became the 10th NYPD officer to die by suicide this year. Eight of those deaths have occurred since June. An average of five NYPD officers have killed themselves each year between 2014 and 2018, according to police.
“I think this crisis this year has been a shock to the NYPD and to all of us and it is clear that we need more ways for people to get help,” de Blasio said.
Police departments nationwide have also suffered from an increase in suicides, NYPD officials said. An off-duty, 27-year veteran of the Nassau County Police Department took his own life earlier this month.
Mental health and police advocacy groups have taken notice.
So far this year, 183 active and retired officers nationwide have killed themselves, according to Blue H.E.L.P., a Massachusetts-based organization that advocates for mental health services for police.
First responders are more likely to die from suicide than in the line of duty because of what they witness on the job, according to a 2018 white paper commissioned by the Ruderman Family Foundation, an advocacy organization for people with disabilities.
“They see a lot of human pain,” de Blasio said of police officers. “They are there to help people in some of the toughest moments in their lives but then they share in that experience. Even if they are the savior, they still see that pain and they deal with a lot of stress and a lot of challenges.”
That is why it is especially important for NYPD officers to feel they can seek mental health assistance without feeling stigmatized, said Steven Corwin, chief executive officer of NewYork-Presbyterian.
“We have to destigmatize it to allow people to safely seek treatment, to make sure they can get better and get well,” Corwin said.
The mayor spoke candidly about his father, a decorated U.S. Army veteran who struggled with depression and alcoholism before he killed himself. In his father's view, de Blasio said, seeking help for mental health problems would have made him look weak.
“It’s not weakness, it’s part of being human,” de Blasio said. “I couldn’t understand it as a kid, but I realize it now. My dad was not weak because he had a problem. He was a human.”
Finest Care will be funded with $1.2 million from the NYPD, the department said. The Washington, D.C.-based National Police Foundation provided $150,000 to support the program.
Beginning Monday, cops seeking mental health assistance can call a hotline — 646-697-2020 — 24 hours a day, seven days a week to speak to a coordinator who will connect them with one of Finest Care’s 25 psychiatrists or psychologists. The coordinators are trained to determine whether a caller is in need of immediate help.
“I want to say something to our officers,” de Blasio said. “If you think you need to make that call, make that call.”