New York City Taxi Drivers Facing Financial Hardships Are Depressed and Committing Suicide

Three taxi drivers, from left, Lal Singh, Nicolae Hent and Lakhbir Rangar, spoke after a New York City Council meeting to consider bills that would help drivers facing financial hardships as a result of the rise of Uber and other ride-hail apps.
Yana Paskova for The New York Times

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.

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

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

Mr. Ochisor was one of six professional drivers to commit 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 Mr. 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 American 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 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?” Mr. 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,” Mr. 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.”

Mr. 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,” Mr. Singh said. “What are you living for?”

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SOURCE: New York Times, Emma G. Fitzsimmons