What I Learned Talking People Out Of Suicide
Talking a potential suicide down from the ledge is obviously a high-stakes situation. Believe it or not, most of them don't respond to someone blasting that Third Eye Blind song. It takes a lot of patience, a subtle touch, and a big heart to dissuade even a single jumper. Former California Highway Patrolman Kevin Briggs did it over 200 times. From 1994 to 2013, he patrolled the Golden Gate Bridge, where over 1500 lives have ended in suicide. We spoke to him and he told us ...
There Was No Training In Place For Dealing With Potential Suicides
Clearly, Kevin Briggs was struck by a meteor as a child, given super-empathetic powers, and knew he must use them to benefit the world. That's the kind of origin story you'd assume, but no -- there was no predestined calling. A friend invited him to try out for the highway patrol. He thought the job looked cool. He gave it a shot: "And I'm going I don't know, man, that sounds pretty tough, but we tried out and I made it, and he didn't. Best move I ever made."
There was no "suicide prevention" department or anything; Kevin had no idea what was coming and he received absolutely no training on dealing with potential suicides. The possibility was barely even mentioned. That's fairly in line with the '90s attitude toward suicide. It was a shameful subject that polite company shouldn't speak of, like society's brief infatuation with JNCO jeans.
"Roger loved playing with rope. It was an accident."
"It was very much a disservice to the folks I was speaking to, and to myself. I was very unprepared to deal with these types of calls. It wasn't spoken about much then. Even though I was raised [near San Francisco], I knew it happened but I didn't know how often."
So Kevin's first encounter with a suicidal person wasn't an inspirational moment -- it was a bad comedy routine.
"A young woman was over the rails standing on the I-Beam, and I didn't know what to say. I think I did about everything wrong. It was a shock for me, I was like, 'What are you doing over there? You could get hurt! Come back!'"
That little outcropping, beyond the rail, the arrow is pointed at, is the I-Beam, where most potential jumpers find themselves.
Weirdly, the fact that she might get hurt didn't sway her, so Kevin pushed on.
"I said things like 'Everything's going to be OK!' and all these things I don't know. 'I understand what you're going through!' No, I don't. So I said about everything wrong. But I think what I had going for me was true empathy and the fact that she probably had pity on me. 'This guy doesn't know what he's doing, I don't want to damage him forever.'"
Luckily, he got better at it.
This is like starting a video game on the last level.
He Had To Develop His Own Routine
Kevin did receive some formal training near the end of his career, but mostly he just winged it. That's more appropriate for video games than suicide prevention, but it worked.
"I'd walk up and introduce myself as Kevin. Not Officer Kevin Richard Briggs of the California Highway Patrol, because who cares at that point? If I can take it to a human level, just 'Hi, can I come up and talk?' and allow them to make that decision ... [that] sets the tone for a good outcome. And when they'd say yes I'd try to position myself below them. It doesn't do any good for me to look down on them. It's like I'm being a judge. So everything that I can do, it's set up to empower them."
"Wow, you have incredibly great balance to get all the way over there!"
Kevin quickly determined that most cases had three things in common ...
"Most of them feel as if they're a burden to their families. Most of them suffer from a mental illness, and if they were prescribed a medication they had stopped taking it."
... and that there were a lot of similarities in the problems they were facing.
"Marital or boyfriend/girlfriend [problems]. For the kids, a big deal is grades. Especially at high-end schools because the parents are paying a lot of money, so now the kid feels guilty. That's a lot of pressure.'"
"I'm not even good enough to fail out of Harvard; I'm failing out of Brown ..."
But the key was always letting people talk. There's no magic word you can say, no cheat code that hacks the human brain into wanting to live again. They need someone who's willing to listen to them because they probably haven't had that in a long time.
"I like to get them talking a lot more than I'm talking. If they will talk like 80 percent of the time, then I'm doing good. I also take a lot of breaks. I will step back and let them think, and it gives me a chance to contemplate. 'What's my best route here?' You don't want to keep pressing them and chatting, chatting, chatting. They get tired! It's cold, and 99 percent of the time they're not dressed for it. And they're thinking about what might be their last few minutes on Earth. So I give them some time."
You wouldn't think that negotiations with the suicidal would include frequent breaks -- that seems like prime "dwellin' on it" time -- but there you go. If all went well, Kevin would get them back over the railing and on their way to a hospital. He'd rarely ever see them again.
"Say, don't I know- OH, HEY! Small world!"
"I generally don't follow up with folks because I don't want to be a trigger for them, a reminder of what's probably the darkest day of their life. Because when they come back over, it's like a rebirth."
Kevin walked us through one case.
"I started into my usual deal, 'Hey, I'm Kevin, can I come and talk to you for a while?' He wanted nothing to do with me. He told me, 'If you come one step closer, I'm jumping.' It was a good 15 minutes before he allowed me to come speak with him. We spoke for over 90 minutes. He talked about all sorts of things. His birth mother wanted nothing to do with him, his adopted parents divorced when he was -- I believe -- 13, and he thought he was the cause. He was prescribed a medication for mental illness but he wasn't taking it, his child was born two months premature, he thought he was the cause of that, plus he now had a bill from the hospital for over 200,000 dollars. And he just lost his job. He was just spiraling down."
It was like the most depressing verse cut from the Friends theme imaginable.
That's what suicide often looks like. No single dramatic cause, just a steady flow of bullshit until it forms an ocean deep enough to drown in.
"During this 90 minute period, I spoke for maybe five or six minutes. He wanted someone to listen. So I didn't argue, I didn't ask, 'Well why didn't you do ...' I didn't offer advice, I was just there, saying things like, 'Wow, man, that sounds tough.' And that's all he was looking for. And he decided to come back over the rail. So that's kind of my mantra. Just listen."
Attempted Suicide Is Nothing Like In The Movies
Perhaps the biggest surprise to Kevin was how weirdly calm people could be -- like they were chatting at a bus stop, instead of waiting for death on the very wrong side of a safety railing.
"A number were under the influence. You know, liquid courage. But the ones that weren't, even though they were emotional, they were at peace. It's like they had already made up their mind, and they just wanted some time to contemplate it. Or before someone came up and talked to them and got them thinking that maybe there really is one more chance."
Those talks could last for a long time, and one wrong move could destroy hours spent building trust.
"Dammit, I shouldn't have said I liked Picard better."
"The longest was over eight hours. I was working with a deputy sheriff, we would take turns talking. It was a long time before he would actually say anything. But I did one thing I will never do again -- we made an attempt to grab him. He had his hands through the rail, so we made a plan to grab him, this was several hours in. Our hands just slipped off because he was so cold and clammy. He jerked back. And then we had to start building a rapport from zero again."
Suicidal people are also worried about getting arrested. That's a myth: You're not going to get punished for choosing to live. This isn't the world's cruelest sting operation.
"Can't believe you fell for that one, idiot!"
"They think that if they come back over, since law enforcement is now involved, they're going to be arrested. Well, these folks haven't done anything. They're just suffering."
Kevin also made it clear that there's nothing bold and heroic about the process. It's a job that has to be done patiently and slowly.
"For a movie, it's made to get attention. But it's not a hero thing. It just isn't. You're there for that individual, and I teach that when I talk to law enforcement specifically. If you're out there to be a hero, you're going to lose people. So either get that out of your system, or get a different job. Because we don't need heroes."
You'll notice there's no bat signal in the night for these guys.
And for Christ's sake, don't tell someone that everything's going to be fine.
"If I say, 'Everything's going to be alright,' well, that's a load of crap. They're going to see right through that and know that I don't care. They have a long road ahead, and I can't fix what their issues are. But at least I can offer them the chance of fixing it."
You Don't Always Succeed
Kevin averaged about two cases a month. Helping people talk through their worst fears, then convincing them to step back from the abyss sounds exhausting. Doing it as often as we drunkenly forget not to go to Taco Bell? That sounds debilitating. Kevin spoke about the value of having a strong support group, but he was also honest about the times when it frayed the edges of his own mental health: "Especially for the few that I lost. You'll remember that forever. We help a lot more folks than we lose, but the ones that we lose stick in our heads forever. You think 'What could I have done different?' It's tough. It really is."
Kevin lost two people that he spoke with. One moment they were there, chatting with him, and the next they ... weren't. "One gentleman, he was a really nice guy, not under the influence, dressed nice ... he just wouldn't answer questions. He'd chit-chat a little bit, but wouldn't say what had gone on in his life. Wouldn't give me his name. He was really polite, and he actually shook my hand three times. And on the third time he said, 'Kevin, I want to thank you, but I have to go.' And he jumped. I remember tearing up right when it happened. I just couldn't believe it. It was really, really tough."
And then Kevin got back to work. Sometimes that's all you can do.
"Do I have any sick days left?"
"As time goes on we try to think of the people that we've helped, which is a lot more. People say, 'Oh, you've saved so many people,' but I don't really look at that way. I don't think I really saved anybody. I think I was there during a very, very dark time in their lives, and maybe I was a conduit in helping them."
Talking People Out Of Suicide Changes You
Here's why Kevin doesn't like the idea of heroes: We want our heroes to be larger than life, and we don't like the idea of them needing help with their own problems. Well, Kevin has clinical depression, and doing this work changed how he looked at mental health.
"Years and years ago, I thought it was a weakness. I was in the infantry, then I worked in state corrections, then I was in highway patrol. I thought mental illness couldn't happen to me. But it knocked me down pretty hard."
A lot of the people he talked down were kids that felt pressured by their parents, and that helped him learn to recognize that trait in himself.
You can't hear "My parents don't understand," that many times without it starting to sink in.
"It made me a lot more empathetic. My own son had a very dark time, and a lot of it was because of things I did. I didn't talk about my divorce, because I was embarrassed and ashamed, and he thought he was the cause. He was around 13, that's a big one to put on a kid, and I didn't even know I was doing it. I didn't think I was pushing him for good grades, but I was. We were able to get him some help, and I learned a tremendous amount about myself and how to be a better parent. I could have easily lost my oldest boy to suicide based on a lot of things that I did. I'm still learning."
It gave Kevin perspective on some other things, too: "I needed to realize that succeeding can be quite different in how you approach it. If I have a house and clothes, food on the table, a car, and I can pay my bills, well ... I used to think, 'Oh, man, I'm struggling to make these payments.' But then you look at somebody who I engaged with, they may have absolutely nothing. They've been struggling and trying and trying, but they don't have anything. So I really do have a lot to be thankful for here."
Kevin is an amazing guy, whose work is infinitely more valuable to society than, say, the time we spent six months trying to teach dogs to play Mario Kart. But he has to be allowed his flaws, the same as the people out there on that ledge. That's kind of the point: There's no real difference between them.
But bad circumstances and a railing.
There Is Work To Be Done
The way society thinks about suicide has drastically improved since Kevin first started working. For starters, there's now training in place, so that future Kevins don't have to "wing" such a dire situation.
"It's getting a lot better. You used to not be able to even talk about it. You would hear committed suicide, and now that's slowly going by the wayside, we're saying 'lost their life to suicide' or something to that effect. Committed is putting a negative spin on it, like they committed a robbery. And people are a lot more open to it now. I get asked to speak at anywhere from Notre Dame to community colleges to Jewish community centers, all sorts of places. It's amazing, the folks who want to help each other out."
You know what's uglier than nets? Letting people die.
Kevin spoke with the designer and he thinks it will help (suicide is generally impulsive, and people who are prevented from jumping off the bridge rarely pursue another method). But there's more work to be done.
"I think we need to get to kids. Start early; start talking about signs and symptoms. Tell them that you're going to have a lot of stress in your life at certain times, and you might not be feeling right. We all have bad mental health days, but if that turns into a couple of weeks, there's something going on, and we need to figure it out. Mental illness is an illness. I had cancer when I turned 21, I've had three stints in my heart, I've been diagnosed with depression, and these things are all illnesses. It's going to take a long time, it's a very slow, uphill battle, but it is getting better."
Don't be afraid to talk about suicide. And if you're considering it, well, don't be a part of the most morbid tourist industry imaginable. Kevin has seen people from all over the world come to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge. And it's not worth it.
Please stop ending bucket lists here.
"It's the top spot in the United States for loss of life to suicide. Some people hear about it and want to be one of the folks who jump. But there's no glory in it. You're not getting your name on a gold plaque. And it's really a nasty way to go. Talk to someone. Get some help. You have a chance for a better life."
If you need help, you can visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can learn more about Kevin and his speaking services at his website, or check out his book. Mark is on Twitter and also has a book.
For more insider perspectives on suicide, check out 5 Disturbing Things I Learned Working At A Suicide Hotline and 4 Surprising Things You Learn After Considering Suicide.
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