Warning: Distressing Content
How can you save someone from suicide? It’s a million-dollar question many Americans are mystified by this National Suicide Prevention Week.
There aren’t many people who are asked this question more than Kevin Briggs, a retired California Highway Patrol officer who has stopped upwards of two hundred people from jumping off of the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco Bay to their untimely deaths.
Kevin spoke to UNILAD from his home, where he lives with his wife and children, chronicling what he’s learned as the Guardian of Golden Gate Bridge.
Kevin doesn’t like to think about his work as ‘saving lives’. He prefers to think of his actions as helping people ‘on a very dark day of their life’.
Like most of us, Kevin had been directly impacted by suicide before he applied to become a California Highway Patrol officer – and long before he was stationed to the south side of the Golden Gate Bridge.
His paternal grandfather had taken his own life before Kevin had the chance to meet him and, he says matter-of-factly, ‘a few folks I had known through friends had lost their life to suicide’.
But, as for so many, these deaths were a tragic fact of life – an unpreventable sadness – in Kevin’s mind.
That is, until he came face to face with a suicidal person on his patrol and managed to help them see there was another option besides taking their own life – which the Zero Suicide Alliance dubs ‘a permanent solution to a temporary problem’.
He freely admits he had no idea he would be doing this type of work – now a prominent figure in suicide prevention – until he first encountered someone ready to jump from the Golden Gate Bridge.
Agreeing he’s an empathic person, in his ever-so humble manner, Kevin added:
The first person I spoke to who was contemplating suicide was a young female who was a drug user and possibly homeless. The suffering and pain I could see in their eyes left a mark on me forever.
She had lost all hope and wanted her emotional pain to end. I spoke to her for an hour or so and she did in fact come back over the rail.
I learned a lot from her about the suffering people can go through. She really just needed someone to listen to her and provide some piece of hope.
The NHS offers advice if you are feeling suicidal, or you’re worried about someone else:
Over the years, Kevin would meet many more people like her, many of whom he still keeps in close contact with, like his namesake Kevin Berthia, who felt his life was ‘spiralling out of control’ when Briggs met him on the Golden Gate Bridge.
Berthia was adopted and, Kevin recalled, his birth mother wanted nothing to do with him. His adopted parents loved him very much, but they divorced when he was 13 and Berthia thought he was the cause of it.
He suffered from mental illness and was supposed to be on medication but had stopped taking it.
He thought if he started a family life he would get better, so he had a child, but his baby was born two months early and required hospitalisation for a couple of months.
Berthia thought he had done something wrong, a sadness compounded by his child coming home to a bill of $250,000 for hospital services.
Berthia was not able to pay this bill and shortly thereafter he was let go from his job. He considered himself a failure and thought ending his life was the only answer.
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“It wasn’t his accolades that saved me, it was that he listened to me.” #KevinBerthia on Sgt. #KevinBriggs, #GoldenGateBridge operator. ? You know hearing & meeting them today wrecked me! ? #bhc2018 #listentounderstand ➡️? ? “Oh that you would choose life, that you and your descendants may live” Deut. 30:19 #chooselife
On that day, he went to the Golden Gate Bridge and stepped over the pedestrian rail, during one of the Guardian’s shifts. The pair spoke for over an hour and a half.
The officer and former army veteran was keen to point out, during that time, he must’ve only spoken for four or five minutes. Instead, he listened to Kevin.
The pair were reunited years later at a suicide prevention event. Berthia also wrote the Afterword in Briggs’ book Guardian of the Golden Gate: Protecting the Line Between Hope and Despair.
Kevin told UNILAD:
All Kevin [Berthia] was really looking for was for someone to listen to him, not judge him or tell him what he should do or what he should have done.
This is what I see with many people who are struggling. They want to be heard, listened to without judgement.
To understand how you can stop someone from killing themselves, there are some myths around suicide which need debunking first.
According to the Zero Suicide Alliance, all suicides are preventable and most suicidal people don’t want to die – they just think it’s their only option in that moment.
They firmly believe suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem which can be fixed with the right help and support.
Secondly, there is no such thing as a painless suicide.
For every person who takes their own life, 135 other people are affected directly – all of whom are then at a 65 per cent increased risk of suicide subsequently.
By stepping in and interrupting someone’s suicidal thoughts, you could be making 136 lives all that much better. Kevin understands this more than most – and not just because he graduated fourth in a class of 120 at the Academy.
While he’s never experienced suicidal thoughts, he has battled depression through much of his adult life, and his encounters with the fragility of human nature have left him with PTSD.
He said his career path to suicide prevention has helped him deal with depression, however:
I have learned so much from folks I have talked to on the bridge and continue to talk with as I present around the country and world.
I think [my PTSD] was to be expected though. If a person observes events as shocking as a suicide completion and it did nothing to them I don’t think they would do well as a first responder/negotiator.
We do what we do because we care. We know the emotional harm it may cause us, but most of the time the work is very satisfying, and we are proud to help those in need.
Only twice was Kevin unable to ‘talk someone back over’ and he tells UNILAD how he has ‘played them over and over in my mind at times, thinking about what I may have done differently’ ever since.
He recalls a special bond he made in the space of an hour with an ‘extremely intelligent’ 32-year-old called Jason Gerber, who Kevin encountered on a crisp July day in 2013 on the bridge before he took his own life.
Jason asked Kevin if he knew the story of Pandora’s box – a mythological object containing all the world’s evils and sorrows alongside hope, the only good thing in the box.
Jason asked Kevin what if, when he opened the box, there was no hope inside. It left the cop stuck for words. Jason had suffered for years with mental illness, Kevin recalls, and ‘simply could not figure out a way to continue on’.
I met him on the Golden Gate Bridge on July 22, 2013 as he was sitting on the chord on the other side of the pedestrian rail. We spoke for nearly an hour before Jason decided to leap from the bridge.
It was a horrific day for his family and myself. He lives today in my thoughts and prayers.
He recalled how Jason’s father gave Kevin support after that day in his TED Talk:
Another time, a man shook Kevin’s hand twice during a conversation which lasted less than an hour. The third time they shook hands, the man thanks Kevin for everything but added, ‘I have to go because my grandmother is down there’, and then he jumped.
It’s true to say influencing someone who wants to take their own life is difficult and sometimes you alone can’t help. But it’s always worth trying because, as Kevin notes, you might end up helping many, many more people than you lose.
This sentiment really hit home when Kevin’s son experienced his own self-harm and suicide crisis.
Kevin reflected on his own devastation, saying:
My son’s struggle with suicide was a real eye opener for me. You just never know what a person may be going through, even under your own roof.
I really do think that sometimes we miss what is going on right in front of us. This is especially true for first responders. We work long hours at work assisting those in need.
Sometimes we put our own health at risk, while even missing what is going on at home.
Indeed, Sharon McDonnell, Managing Director of Suicide Bereavement UK and Honorary Research Fellow at the
University of Manchester told UNILAD health professionals are deemed a high risk group as well as those bereaved by suicide.
She explained the multi-faceted impact suicide could have on someone like Kevin:
[They] are deeply affected when a patient dies by suicide and often experience similar grief responses as families bereaved by suicide, such as; shame, blame, guilt, distress, isolation, and stigmatisation.
There are key resources for professionals who have been affected by suicide given by the American Association of Sucidology.
Now Kevin is retired he spends most of his time talking about suicide at conferences and events, swapping his patrol uniform for a suit and his bike for a microphone.
He know shares what he knows from the FBI’s Crisis Negotiation Course through his organisation, Pivotal Points, working alongside universities, military organisations and mental health charities.
Kevin weighed in on what can help someone step back from the brink:
Many times it is just listening, without judging, advisement or condemnation. Generally speaking folks contemplating suicide cannot see a future for themselves.
By allowing them to vent and providing some sense of real hope for the future can many times get the past the crisis.
The ripples of Kevin’s work is felt across the country in other cases of first responders.
The Golden Gate Bridge isn’t the only infamous spot with a Guardian Angel. In Nanjing, China, the Yangtze River Bridge sees over 2,000 people take their lives each year. It’s the most popular place in the world to end your own life.
Chen Si, who wears a red jacket emblazoned with the words ‘Cherish everyday’, patrols the 70-metre-high bridge on his scooter from 8am to 8pm every weekend, spending half his courier’s wage on his mission to stop people taking their own lives.
People call him the Angel of Nanjing, because he’s helped hundreds of people:
Donald Taylor “Don” Ritchie was a life insurance salesman and World War II veteran who helped an estimated 500 people come away from The Gap, a Sydney cliff edge on which he and his family lived for 45 years.
Japan also has their own Kevin Briggs story. Yukio Shige is a retired Japanese police officer, who helped stop countless suicides at the Tōjinbō cliffs in Fukui Prefecture in Japan, before setting up his own suicide prevention foundation in 2004, which has since saved 586 lives.
You can watch his story in the documentary Field of Vision below:
Closer to home, in the UK, the Samaritans ran a campaign called Small Talk Saves Lives, which found 69 per cent of people know a simple question can be enough to break the flow of negative and despairing thoughts of somebody that’s feeling suicidal.
One 18-year-old, Paige Hunter, came up with an innovate solution and tied more than 40 uplifting notes inscribed with messages to those who were contemplating suicide on Sunderland’s Wearmouth Bridge.
The Northumberland police praised her kinds words which told people to ‘hold on’:
Her story shows how we all can help save lives, with grand gestures or by simply speaking to strangers, or acknowledging other humans who seem distressed.
In May 2018, UNILAD spoke to Jonny Benjamin MBE, a man who was once suicidal and contemplating taking his own life on Waterloo Bridge until a stranger among the hundreds streaming past stopped to talk.
That man was Neil Laybourn (pictured left) – and that day he saved Jonny’s life. They’re now good friends and campaign for suicide prevention and better mental health services nationwide.
You might think Neil’s life-saving actions that day were above and beyond the normal realms of human interaction. But a Samaritans survey, as part of the Small Talk Saves Lives campaign, found 44 per cent of us would be encouraged to make an approach if they knew they weren’t going to make the situation worse.
Let it be known then, research shows using the word suicide does not put the thought into someone’s head or make it more likely to happen.
On the contrary, asking a direct question reduces misunderstanding and enables better conversation.
Dr Lisa Marzano, an Associate Professor in Psychology at Middlesex University London, conducted the research which informed Samaritans’ Small Talk Saves Lives campaign and found 42 per cent of us would feel encouraged to make an approach if they knew they could make a positive difference.
In fact, many people who have attempted suicide and survived report feeling instantaneous regret upon taking action to end their lives.
Consider this next time you feel you don’t want to intrude on the autonomy of someone who is suicidal.
A further 33 per cent of us would feel encouraged to make an approach to someone seeming suicidal if they knew they could get immediate help from trained staff upon request.
While it’s always great to have a professional help on hand, the Zero Suicide Alliance does offer free training on how to approach the topic of suicide. It only takes twenty minutes and it could save a life.
It’s important to identify signs of potential risk:
Meanwhile, over in California, Kevin is working on building a net which sits below the Golden Gate Bridge – offering a barrier between those sitting on the chord beyond the pedestrian railing and the churning waters 220 feet below.
Official figures estimate an average of 30 people jump every year, but Briggs believes the figure is higher. Almost 60 people jumped in his final year of work back in 2013.
Between 1937 and 2012, an estimated 1,600 bodies were recovered from the San Francisco bay. The Golden Gate Bridge, Transportation and Highway District expects construction on the stainless steel net, stretching across the bridge perimeter, to be completed in 2021.
The net will definitely stop most, if not all suicides from the bridge.
But in my opinion, it’s the power of human connection and human interaction which can not only prevent someone from attempting suicide, but help lead them to a path where suicide is no longer an option.
After all, the best safety net to stop someone from feeling suicidal in the first place is the emotional one Kevin has been able to provide to strangers over the years.
He can do this, not because he’s a cop or an army vet or trained in FBI negotiation, but because he’s human.
We can all do our bit, in any small way, to help stop suicide.
Today marks the final day of National Suicide Prevention Week in the US. Thank you for following UNILAD’s Suicide Prevention series. But this isn’t the end.
If you’ve been affected by any of these issues, and want to speak to someone in confidence, please don’t suffer alone. Call Samaritans for free on their anonymous 24-hour phone line on 116 123.
In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14. Hotlines in other countries can be found at Suicide.org.
Save a life. Take the free suicide prevention training provided by Zero Suicide Alliance today.