A nonprofit recently launched peer mental health support seminars to heal traumatized NYC cops.
Police Organization Providing Peer Assistance (POPPA) is a nonprofit founded in 1996 to help police officers cope with trauma experienced on the job.
The organization puts specially trained volunteer officers and former cops in touch with those in need to offer peer support.
Retired NYPD Detective Lou Yero said the nonprofit “saved my life.”
Yero turned to alcohol after years of trauma accumulated on the job, and was seconds away from shooting himself in the head before he hesitated.
“And then I looked in the mirror and saw my son’s room,” Yero recalled at POPPA’s first seminar. “I said, ‘I can’t let my son find me.’ I even unloaded my gun, but then I reloaded it.”
Thankfully, Yero was able to get the help he needed through POPPA’s peer support programs.
Over 50 police officers, detectives, sergeants and lieutenants attended the recent seminar, which was prompted by the suicides of three New York cops last year.
Suicide is a grim reality among members of the law enforcement industry.
According to the nonprofit, 10 NYPD officers committed suicide in 2019. In addition, Blue H.E.L.P., an organization that tracks suicides among law enforcement and offers support to victims families, recorded 183 suicides in 2021 and 136 suicides so far this year.
For Yero, years on the job and investigating cases such as that of a 2-month-old boy found buried in a concrete container, and another of a missing 8-year-old boy whose body was found in a suitcase, led to severe PTSD.
“I started drinking more every day, as soon as I got home from work,” he said. “It got to the point where I gained weight. My suits didn’t fit. I had high blood pressure, cholesterol and became a diabetic. Things were bad at home.”
Clinical psychologist Dr. Jennifer Taylor spoke about the signs of PTSD at the recent seminar.
“Cops are exposed to horrific incidents every day. It can be overwhelming. We try to help them cope. We look for red flags,” she said.
“We look for signs of PTSD, ask them if there have been changes in their eating, sleeping habits. You have to get them over the stigma of seeking help,” explained Taylor.
POPPA Director John Petrullo, a retired NYPD officer, said the organization receives 600 to 700 calls every year from active cops, and even more from retired officers.
According to Petrullo, the NYPD averages five suicides per year.
“We hope to teach participants how to take better care of themselves, deal with stress and learn how to separate their job from their outside life,” Petrullo said.
“We are dealing with a population that is resistant to mental health. We have to try to make them understand that it is alright to seek and get help.”
Retired NYPD Lieutenant Rich Mack decided to join POPPA as a peer support officer after a colleague was traumatized from a shooting.
“I also knew cops that needed help and never got it — their problems escalated, and they got into more trouble, and some were fired,” Mack said. “Things might have turned out different if they had help.”