STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — A former NYPD psychologist said that the department needs to fully change its approach to mental health treatment if it wants to seriously address a spate of recent officer suicides.
“From my estimation, this is fundamentally and primarily a policy issue,” Dr. Tom Coghlan said. “You need a complete root-and-branch tearing-up of the current wellness policy in the NYPD.”
In the last eight years of his 21-year career, Coghlan worked as an NYPD psychologist. From 2014 to when he retired in 2018, Coghlan worked as the department’s clinical liaison to the Police Organization Providing Peer Assistance (POPPA), which is not officially part of the NYPD but recognized as a resource for officers.
He described his role as a “no man’s land” between the department and POPPA that often left him at odds with his superiors. Services provided by POPPA are confidential, which he said encourages cops to seek help.
“My job there was to monitor and evaluate cops who were receiving confidential mental health treatment, and to act as a form of insulation between the cops and the department,” he said.
“I had to respect the cops’ confidentiality, and couldn’t report the specifics of their treatment back to the department.”
He said he saw “dozens” of cops self-refer to POPPA during his time working with the organization, but never saw one self-refer when he worked internally as a psychologist.
POPPA also provides a hotline for retired officers like former Sgt. Edward Rosa, who took his own life Sept. 1 in Eltingville. Rosa was the tenth current or former officer this year to commit suicide.
Coghlan now has a private practice in Long Island where he works mostly with cops and their family members.
THE FEAR OF COMING FORWARD
He said in an interview with the Advance that in his work he found officers often fear the punitive measures that can come from a department psychological evaluation landing them on restricted duty, even if the officer chose to seek help on their own.
Things like losing overtime, being taken off a consistent tour of duty, or even being moved to a different command can come when an officer is placed on restricted duty. That’s on top of how it can affect officers’ career aspirations, which was a concern Commissioner James O’Neill acknowledged in a July interview with NBC 4.
“I know there’s a stigma attached to it, but we do our best in the NYPD to offer options where no one needs to know,” he said.
Coghlan advocates for a change to department policy, in coordination with mental health professionals, that would stop treating mental health cases the same way as disciplinary cases, especially for the officers who seek help.
“These are human beings in need of treatment, who won’t come forward for help because of the way they’re treated,” the NYPD veteran said.
“What they (the NYPD) need to do is remove all the punitive things that come along with being placed on restricted duty, so that cops will be less afraid and hesitant to come forward voluntarily.”
He said that cops placed on restricted duty for psychological reasons after seeking mental health treatment should not be allowed to continue carrying their guns, but should be given more consideration when it’s being decided what the designation will mean for them.
Whether it’s staying in one’s command, where cops have an existing support system, or continuing to earn overtime that they might rely on, cops who voluntarily participate in psychological treatment should not face the same consequences as someone on restricted duty for disciplinary reasons, Coghlan said.
The department did not say whether it is considering changing restricted duty policies for those officers.
However, an NYPD spokeswoman did say the department is taking steps to address the recent spate of suicides, and general mental health among officers.
The department established a health and wellness task force, and officials have sought input from mental health experts, medical facilities, other police departments, and current members of service on how to improve the department’s approach to mental health.
In addition to POPPA, the department provides an Employee Assistance Unit, and a Chaplain’s Unit where officers can turn in times of need. According to the NYPD website, the EAU respects officers’ confidentiality except in cases where they’ve committed a serious crime, or prove to be a danger to themselves or others.
A phone app has also been developed by the department that will be installed on officers’ phones, and provide them with access to the services available.
A peer support program is being developed that will look for volunteers on the command level to help their fellow officers. The volunteers will be trained by mental health professionals, and work alongside internal department resources to provide help.
Officials have also incorporated a federal training program created by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration that aims to help officers learn to recognize the signs and symptoms of stress, depression, PTSD, and suicidal thoughts and actions.
“Shield of Resilience” is an hour-long online course that is free of charge to the department, according to SAMHSA. It can be accessed by the general public.
“The NYPD has a moral imperative to explore all options to support the mental health and wellness of members of service,” NYPD spokeswoman Det. Sophia Mason wrote in an emailed statement.
Coghlan said that training for officers might help cops recognize when a fellow officer is struggling, but said things won’t change until there’s a policy shift.
“You can’t train your way out of suicide — you just can’t,” he said. “NYPD cops are the most highly trained cops of the 10 major big city police departments in the country. Training is constant…If training were the answer to suicide, we’d have zero suicides in the NYPD.”