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Suicides get taxi drivers [in New York] talking: “I’m going to be one of them”

October 10, 2018

[This problem is not confined to Big Apple … authorities worldwide need to seriously look into why this is happening to good hardworking people]

 

By Emma G. Fitzsimmons, New York Times, October 01, 2018

NEW YORK — Both men were longtime taxi drivers from Romania. Both were worried about paying their bills as Uber decimated their industry. They were best friends. And both had struggled with depression.

Nicanor Ochisor’s wife dragged him to a doctor in March to get help. Two days later, he hanged himself in his garage.

“I didn’t know he was so depressed,” his friend, Nicolae Hent, said.

Hent had taken antidepressants. He wished he could have told Ochisor that it would get better.

“I didn’t know. I still feel bad even now — why I didn’t know that,” Hent said recently as he drove his taxi through Queens.

Ochisor was one of six professional drivers to die by suicide in New York in the last year — a crisis that has prompted a flurry of legislation to address the despair plaguing the industry. Most were men in their 50s and 60s anguished about their finances and feeling hopeless about being able to retire.

Many taxi drivers are under incredible stress, but Ochisor’s story shows how difficult it can be to convince those with severe depression to talk about it. Life behind the wheel of a taxi can be solitary and the job tends to attract independent-minded people who might not feel comfortable talking about emotions that can carry a stigma.

But city officials are urging drivers to seek help. In August, the City Council approved a cap on Uber and other ride-hail vehicles — the first major U.S. city to rein in the booming apps. Now the council is considering a separate set of bills that would establish a health fund for drivers and create “driver assistance centers” for mental health counseling and financial advice.

One bill aims to help taxi medallion owners saddled with massive debt. Corey Johnson, the council speaker, said the city was considering several measures to do that, including a partial bailout or a hardship fund for medallion owners who drive their taxis — not for large-scale owners like Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s former lawyer who with his wife owned more than 30 medallions.

“For the smaller individual medallion owners, what can we do to help them get out from under this crushing debt?” Johnson said in an interview, adding that the council should vote on the bills by the end of the year. “We’re trying to figure out a way to do that.”

The recent string of suicides and the intense publicity they have received are now prodding drivers to speak more openly about their mental health — with each other and with their families. As their industry collapses, the conversations among drivers are different, from sharing photos of their grandchildren or talking about hobbies like winemaking, to discussing how they are going to survive.

Lal Singh, a taxi driver for three decades, said he had thought about suicide as he endured long hours driving his taxi and worried about paying off the loan he had taken out to buy it.

“When I hear that somebody did suicide, I was thinking about me,” Singh said as he waited at the taxi parking lot at Kennedy International Airport on a recent afternoon. “I’m going to be one of them one day.”

Singh, who is 62, owes about $6,200 a month on the taxi medallion he bought in 2000. He often drives a long stretch of Manhattan, from Harlem to Wall Street, looking in vain for passengers.

“When you have nothing to do, we are suffering,” Singh said. “What are you living for?”

At the airport taxi lot on a recent afternoon, taxi driver after driver complained of mounting debt and of feeling abandoned by the city, which has made millions of dollars selling medallions. A taxi medallion, the aluminum plate required to drive a cab in New York, once sold for more than $1 million but is now worth less than $200,000. Many drivers still owe hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans.

One taxi driver, Muhammad Anil, said his children had seen the headlines about the suicides and asked him if he was OK. Anil, 57, told them he was fine, though he is concerned about the more than $500,000 he owes on his medallion.

“I don’t want them to worry about me too much,” he said.

Middle-age drivers may be particularly vulnerable. The suicide rate for people between the ages of 45 and 64 has jumped in recent years, more than for other age groups, said Barbara Stanley, a psychology professor at Columbia University. Suicide is a deeply personal decision and it is difficult to know for certain the factors that drive a person to make that choice. The drivers, Stanley said, “might have been depressed in the past or had a vulnerability to depression and you combine it with these terrible environmental stressors and that’s a recipe for disaster.”

Still, many drivers are resistant to the idea of therapy.

“They’ve driven their whole lives,” said Meera Joshi, the city’s taxi commissioner. “There’s a tremendous amount of pride involved, rightfully so. Part of our messaging is that there’s no shame to needing mental health help.”

At 70, Harbans Singh still works 12-hour shifts in his taxi to pay off his medallion debt. Singh said he was not interested in counseling, adding that he relied on his Sikh faith.

“We don’t need counseling from the TLC,” he said in reference to the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission, which oversees the industry. “I don’t trust the TLC.”

Many drivers have said the best way to help is to offer them financial assistance. But the city is in a difficult position. Any bailout of medallion owners could cost billions of dollars, and officials have said they cannot offer residents a payout unless they are indigent or legally broke. Lyft, another popular app, had discussed the idea of a $100 million “hardship fund” for drivers, paid for by the tech companies, but only if the city dropped the proposal for a cap.

Marlow Pierre, a taxi driver who leases his medallion, said the best solution would be to further restrict Uber.

“Let us get back to business,” Pierre said. “All these guys want to do is work.” Two days before his death, Ochisor saw a doctor and started taking an antidepressant. But it was too late. “He was worrying too much,” Hent said. “He told me many, many times, we have to work until we die.”

Gabriel Ochisor has taken over managing his father’s taxi, which his mother Helen and another driver still operate. The taxi failed a recent inspection because of a ripped seat.

“I can see why you would get stressed and pull your hair out,” Gabriel Ochisor said.

Hent sought help from a doctor around 2005 after a crippling anxiety attack, due in part to the stresses of his job. He started taking two antidepressants and learned coping strategies. He took up tennis.

“I saw how many people are sick in America” with depression, Hent said. “I said, ‘Oh I can take care of this.’”

Now Hent, who is 62 and owes about $130,000 on his medallion, is pushing the city to assist taxi drivers. He spoke at a recent council hearing, waiting three hours for his turn — time spent away from making money in his taxi.

“I’m not going to kill myself,” Hent said. “I won’t kill nobody. But I’ll fight until I die.”

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