Midtown Faces Suicide Crisis Amid Pandemic


The Gotham Hotel in Midtown East

The Gotham Hotel in Midtown East. Photo: Sum Yi Karen Ng

A 34-year-old man was found unresponsive on the second floor of the Gotham Hotel in Midtown in September. Police pronounced him dead at the scene.

“Preliminarily, it appeared he had fallen from an upper floor,” said a New York City Police Department spokesman.

The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner later ruled the death a suicide.

At least eight people have died by suicide this year in Midtown, according to local news reports. Preliminary city and neighborhood data is not yet available for this year, but New York City Department of Health community profiles indicate historically, more people have died by suicide in Midtown than in any other Manhattan neighborhood. The number of adult psychiatric hospitalizations in Midtown has also long been higher than in other Manhattan neighborhoods, according to the data. 

Brett Waters is the founder of Reason for Hope–Hope for Reason. He said residents are “potentially dealing with some highly stressful work situations in Midtown Manhattan, in particular. I think we all know that there’s a lot of people who work stressful jobs, it’s an expensive city.”

Waters lost both his mother and grandfather to suicide, leading him to his current fight for alternative mental health treatment. “We need some serious reform,” he said.

The 16-story Midtown art installation known as the Vessel remains closed indefinitely, after a teenage boy died by suicide there over the summer. The boy’s death marked the fourth suicide at The Vessel in less than two years. 

These deaths are “a major concern” for the community board, according to Jesse Bodine, Community Board 4 district manager. He said the board is fighting for barriers to be built around the structure “to stop people from being able to climb over the fence and jump off.”

“You’ve got severe, severe economic crises, mixed with a health pandemic,” said Bodine. “It’s going to impact those folks who have mental health issues and behavioral health issues.”

Rebecca Gerstein is a social worker and psychotherapist who oversees the Midtown-based support group Sibling Survivors of Suicide and Overdose Loss. Gerstein said she noticed a difference in topics being discussed during group meetings amid the pandemic. “I’m noticing that people feel really stressed out about work. I think people are working around the clock if they have jobs, and they’re feeling like their world is a lot smaller,” she said. “People are incredibly fearful about the environment and what might happen in our world, more than ever.”

Every 16 hours, someone dies by suicide in New York City, according to the Department of Health.

Over the past three years, the number of deaths by suicide citywide “trended upwards fairly significantly and alarmingly,” said Garra Lloyd-Lester, coordinator of community and coalition initiatives at the Suicide Prevention Center of New York. Yet Lloyd-Lester said it is too soon to know whether the pandemic directly correlates to suicide deaths in the city. “Rates of anxiety and depression amongst youth and adolescents have gone up,” he said. “And thoughts of suicide seem to have slightly gone up in 2020.”

Steven Binko is a Milwaukee-based singer and talk show host who survived a suicide attempt last September. He said during the pandemic mental health support moved virtual and became less helpful. “The pandemic isolated people from resources that were already overextended and not easily accessible, and it made finding those even harder,” he said, adding that “there’s nothing else to do in your home but think.”

Binko said exposure therapy, designed to help people confront their fears, helps treat his Obsessive-compulsive disorder. But he said anti-exposure pandemic precautions caused a relapse in his progress, because it counteracted everything he needed to do to stay away from those old patterns. 

Gender identity also impacts mental health. In every year between 2010 and 2019 in New York City, men have been approximately twice more likely than women to die by suicide, New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene data indicates.

Binko said men tend not to express their feelings, believing they have to “suck it up,” he said, adding that his “preconceived notions” were a barrier to seeking therapy. “I think that’s really scary. To get to that level of vulnerability with someone, and not know where that could go,” he said.

After being placed on life support last year, Binko said he was moved into counseling and inpatient therapy, where he felt disconnected from the real world. He said he hopes for mental health reform nationwide.

“We’re continuing to treat everybody the same,” said Binko. “We’ve done what works for so long, but it’s obviously not working. We need to get out of a lot of the old ways that don’t serve us constructively, in how we approach mental health.”