A week after an off-duty sergeant became the 10th officer to die by suicide this year, New York City police are joining a national movement to help officers get confidential help from outside the department.
New York's rate of officer deaths by suicide this year is double the rate of recent years, a reality that Police Commissioner James O'Neill calls a "crisis."
It's why O'Neill joined Mayor Bill de Blasio on Wednesday to announce that the New York City Police Department is working with New York-Presbyterian Hospital to offer confidential counseling and other mental health services outside the department, all of it free, including prescription medications.
The program, called Finest Care, will connect officers with psychologists and psychiatrists from New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center, New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center and New York-Presbyterian's Westchester Division, the city said.
Citing research that almost 1 in 4 police officers have thoughts of suicide at some point in their lives, the NYPD inspector general and the city Department of Investigation echoed O'Neill in a 51-page report last month, declaring that "the NYPD is facing a crisis."
The National Institute of Justice, an agency of the Department of Justice, reported in April that police work is among the most stressful careers a person can pursue. But cops often refuse to seek help because of the "tough guy" culture of police departments, which they believe means acknowledging that they need assistance "could damage their careers," it said.
O'Neill and de Blasio acknowledged the barriers that police culture presents.
"Our officers are supposed to be strong — that's what they've been told," de Blasio said in an interview. "And a lot of times, the biggest challenge is for officers to know it's OK to need help yourself. You're always giving help to other people — you sometimes need to help yourself."
O'Neill said the "stigma" is one reason the new program is anonymous. He stressed that New York-Presbyterian would maintain its records, not the police department.
"We'll just know the number of people that go through the program that are availing themselves of help," he said.
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Several other metropolitan police departments already offer similar programs.
- Dallas police partner with several academic and medical institutions, including the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas, to provide mental health services.
- In San Antonio, the "Cop and Doc" initiative allows officers to reach out to the University of Texas Health Science Center and the Veterans Administration.
- Charlotte-Mecklenburg County police in North Carolina also can go outside for help, with financial assistance from the police department.
O'Neill said that while the New York initiative has been in the works for some time, he's sorry that the department hasn't offered such outside help until now.
"Ten officers killed themselves. How can I not regret that?" he said. "I was a cop for a long time, so I know what they face each and every day."
Referring to the rise in deaths by suicide, de Blasio said: "What's so painful about the human experience is literally people talk themselves into leaving this Earth rather than seeking help. And we've got to break through that."
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.