To Protect and Serve: Suicide Prevention Through the Eyes of Sergeant Kevin Briggs

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To Protect and Serve: Suicide Prevention Through the Eyes of Sergeant Kevin Briggs

By Sarah Asch

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On a foggy night several years ago, Sergeant Kevin Briggs faced an unusual problem on the Golden Gate Bridge. As a California Highway Patrolman who works in the area, one of Briggs’s many duties is to respond to calls from or regarding incidents on the Golden Gate Bridge, including potential suicides. When a call comes in, Briggs goes to talk to the suicidal person. Often these conversations occur with Briggs on the walkway and the person on the tiny, slippery ledge on the other side of the guard rail. This case was a little different. The person in question went for a climb up the main cable.

There's another way: CHP officer Kevin Briggs at the base of his operation. Photo courtesy of Kevin Briggs

There’s another way: CHP officer Kevin Briggs at the base of his operation. Photo courtesy of Kevin Briggs

In the past decade, Briggs has observed an increasing trend of suicides off the Golden Gate Bridge. When he first transferred to Marin, Briggs was one of the people who responded to suicide calls from the bridge. Now, as a sergeant, he has various other responsibilities, so he’s on call for the bridge less often. He estimates that, back when he was on call, he talked to one person every week, including two teenagers over the years. Only one person Briggs ever talked to actually decided to jump.

The reasons that people go to the bridge in the first place vary greatly. “People are up there for all sorts of different reasons whether it’s drug abuse, alcohol, mental depression; sometimes they’re in trouble with the law, money. There are a lot of different issues,” Briggs said.

In fact, there are so many different motives, that on his way to the bridge, Briggs runs through some of the possible scenarios in his head. “You have to go for it. You have to be thinking ahead,” Briggs said. “You have to mentally prepare yourself….You don’t know whether they are going to be over the rail, where they’re going to be on the bridge. So you mentally prepare for it before you go down and start thinking of some things you want to cover. Because you have to roll with it. When you get there it might be something totally different from what you thought.”briggs

One of the situations that Briggs has found himself in is talking to a teenager on the bridge. The motives for teenagers can differ from adults. Both times Briggs arrived on the scene of a potential teen suicide, it was a high school boy. “It was a grade issue,” Briggs said. “They’re expected by their parents to be at a certain [performance] level and they’re not because of stress and all the other things they were involved in, so they think ‘This is how it’s going to end. This is how I can stop this pain. This huge stress on me.’” Although both of the teens Briggs came across were on the bridge for grades, it is important to note that there are many other reasons why teens feel stressed, depressed, or suicidal.

No matter the motive, Briggs’s mission doesn’t change. “My job is to get them back over,” Briggs said. “Of course every parent wants their kid to succeed and get as good a grade as they can, but my grades weren’t very good and I’m here. That’s the thing. I’m here. This is not going to stop. If you jump, you are going to cause so much more pain for everybody.” As somebody with intimate experience with suicide, the message Briggs would like to get to teens is this: “Suicide is definitely not the way to go. You have so much more life ahead of you. So much more time. Give it a chance.”

Briggs did not join the CHP to talk people off the bridge. He wanted a job that allowed him to have a specialty beyond general law enforcement. Before he joined the highway patrol, Briggs served in the army. Once he was discharged, he worked in Soledad prison in Monterey, and then at San Quentin. It was there that one of his co-workers gave him the idea to become a highway patrolman.

Throughout his life, Briggs has been no stranger to the concept of death. Along with his work on the bridge, he has had serious health issues. In the army he was diagnosed with cancer. A few years ago, he had a heart problem and had three stents implanted. His own brushes with death inform his job. Briggs continued to push through and has gained so much experience that he is emerging as something of an expert in his current field.

Briggs started out with the California Highway Patrol (CHP) in Hayward in 1990 and in 1996 he came back to work in Marin, where he was raised. This led to work on the Golden Gate Bridge and being called out to talk to people at risk of suicide. “If you are working down in that area on the bridge you’re gonna get that call so you have to be prepared for that,” Briggs said of CHP officers stationed near the bridge. “If you don’t want to get that type of call, generally you work in another area. Even though it might be upsetting if you’re talking to someone and they jump, that’s part of the deal of working down there.”

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All Briggs’ expertise came from years of practice and as well as learning on the fly. When Briggs first had an interaction with a suicidal person on the bridge in 1996, there was no preemptive training for how to handle the situation. Now, the CHP offers training for officers working the bridge and Briggs has taken part in teaching others what he has learned. The CHP also has counseling available for officers who try to talk somebody back over and are unable to do so. According to Briggs, this is important in alleviating officers from some of the irrational guilt that can be a side effect of witnessing a suicide.

That night on the bridge, Briggs needed all his training and experience He waited indoors with backup as the man began to climb one of bridge’s cables. “He actually got onto the cable and walked all the way up to the top [of the tower],” Briggs said. After hours of watching and positioning to make sure the man didn’t leave or jump, it was time for action. “I went up with a SWAT team and I was going to talk to him,” Briggs said. As he ascended, he prepared for another conversation.

Ideally, people seek help before they ever consider the bridge. Tam offers general guidance counselors available to meet kids on short notice if they are struggling with depression or any other problem. Guidance counselors may then refer students to a program called Bay Area Community Resource (BACR), whose offices are located by the counseling offices in Wood Hall. “What we do is therapy with students,” said Rich Mauterer, who works for BACR at Tam. The students who are assisted by BACR may come seek out help on their own or be referred by counselors, friends or teachers. “We would meet with students and assess for the risk of suicide,” said Mauterer. “Once we do an assessment, we figure out maybe the kid just needs school-based counseling to talk about some problems or maybe it’s bigger than that and they need outside therapy.”

In those cases the therapists at BACR make a referral to an outside therapist. Throughout the process of a potential suicide, BACR makes sure to keep the parents informed. BACR is available to all students, and is paid for by the district, so they are free for students. The services they provide are available in many different elementary, middle, and high schools in Marin county. At Tam, peer resource is also available to provide information and support to students in need.

According to Briggs, the best way for teens to talk about suicide is with “someone who the kids trust. As they get older they kind of deviate from their parents a little bit, so maybe an uncle or somebody older. Maybe a teacher who they trust, and get along with. Just talk to them about the stress.” Briggs uses this approach with his own children.“I have two boys and I would talk to them about [suicide]. It’s like drugs or something else. I know there is a lot of stress. Parents put stress on their kids. Better grades, do better in sports, all these different stressors that people get as they grow up. I want [teens] to know that help is out there. If you feel too much with the different bands that you’re in, the sports, and all that, let’s talk about it. Don’t feel that you have to get A’s. I want them to know there are outlets out there and we can talk.” There is a suicide hot line designed for just this purpose, so people who are feeling depressed for any number of reasons can talk it out for as long as they need to. The number for the San Francisco Crisis Line is (415)-781-0500.

There are many people available to help suicidal teens. But having friends who are suicidal can also be challenging. There are more well-known steps to take including informing their parents or another adult. Briggs believes the most important thing to do is to let the person know you care. “Be with them. Be right with them physically,” Briggs said. Otherwise, they are literally alone as well as feeling alone and that can make the problem worse, he explained.

Whenever Briggs goes out onto the bridge to talk to somebody, he has a singular mission. “My goal is to safely get them back over without force, if possible,” he said. “We try everything we can to show them, ‘Hey, there’s another way. Today isn’t your day. It’s not the worst.’ Whatever’s going on I would like them to come back over on their own.” Once an individual has decided to come back over, they will be offered assistance, but until then, Briggs keeps a respectful distance. “Reaching over, you run the risk of them going at that time, or losing a grip because it’s so slippery and nasty out there, you could just as well go over with them,” he said. According to Briggs, when approaching somebody who is standing on the opposite side of the railing, there is no single formula to get them back over. “You just have to feel it out,” Briggs said. “And that’s all I’ve done.”

To start off, Briggs introduces himself to the person and proceeds from there. “It depends on where they’re at and the climate,” Briggs said. “If they’re over the rail it’s obvious that there is an issue now—a grave issue—this is the last point. I’ll just try to break the ice. I say ‘Hi, I can see you’re having a hell of a day, let me throw a few things at you to think about.’ I don’t know what’s going on, maybe we can talk about that in a while, but generally they’re looking down. I try to get them to look up.” He has various tactics to get people to look up including pointing out the headlands, the city, and the sky.

Briggs also tries to get the person to talk, and when they do, they will often name the reasons they are there, the reasons they need to “go.” Briggs tries to turn it around and remind them of why they need to stay.

“I try to get a name, try to get some stuff about kids, family, somebody we can call,” Briggs said. Any information allows Briggs to adjust what he talks about and keep the person’s focus.

These scenarios, which require flexibility, also sometimes require Briggs to walk away. “You have to be able to let someone else take over, too. Maybe [the suicidal person] wants a female, maybe they want younger, older.” The CHP has multiple officers trained to do what Briggs does—to talk to people on the verge of committing suicide—and whoever is going to be able to get through to the person best is going to handle the situation.

I am sure they would rather have you around getting C’s or D’s than not have you around and think ‘Well she would have got A’s.

Another variable Briggs has to deal with is comments from nearby drivers. “This bothers me,” Briggs said. “I have been actively working a scene, where an individual is over the rail, and I am talking to them, and it’s probably all over the news.” Just like a car accident, such a spectacle often causes traffic jams as people slow down to look. “Sometimes we’ll get the occasional car that drives by,” he said. “Because they’re mad about sitting in traffic, they’ll be swearing, ‘Hurry up and jump.’”

Still, Briggs is almost always successful in getting people back over the rail, having only lost one person. Once someone has been talked out of jumping, they go through the process of being put on a 51-50 hold, or a mental illness hold. The U.S. Constitution guarantees that the government can’t hold you against your will. However, California state law gives the government power to hold a person for up to 72 hours in a hospital if they are a danger to themselves or others.

When talking to subjects, Briggs makes sure they know this is the case. “When people don’t want to come back over the rail because they [think they’re] in trouble, they’re going to go to jail, and all that, no. It’s a detention only,” Briggs said. “And I tell them that. I tell them specifically ‘You are not going to jail. I am not taking you to jail.’ I don’t lie to them.”

An uncommon situation arises with the few people who jump and survive the fall. Although survival is unlikely, those who live offer a rare insight into the mind of somebody who did decide to jump. Kevin Hines is one such person. He survived the fall injured but alive and has since then made a full recovery and is now serving on the San Francisco Mental Health Board. He recounts his experience in an interview in the “The Bridge,” a film documentary. “As soon as I left the rail in my distorted reality I said, ‘I don’t want to die, God please save me,’” Hines said. This makes one wonder about all the people who regretted jumping and are not able to tell us so.SF 052

Briggs does his best to prevent people from having to rely on chance. When he responded to one of the more notable calls he received, Briggs waited on the bridge in the middle of the night for eight hours in the fog with a suicidal individual. When the man finally decided to come back over after all that time, the officers on the scene asked him what had changed his mind. Recounting this experience in a Huffington Post article published December 2012, Briggs’s co-worker Captain Lisa Locati said, “We asked him, ‘What was it finally after all those hours that [convinced] you…to come back? He just said, ‘Kevin wouldn’t give up.’” The allure of suicide on the bridge has not left the youngest generation untouched. Among those who have jumped over the years are more than a handful of teenagers, including past Tam students.

As far as talking to teenagers out on the bridge, the content of the conversation Briggs has with them is different from what he might say to an adult. “Teenagers wouldn’t have the experience an older adult would have,” Briggs said. “So where an adult just lost his job, he has no money, he has a family, he just lost everything. Where as a kid, you’re just starting out, you’re just building up. You still have all these things ahead of you. So you got a bad grade. If your parents are highly stressing you for good grades, and that’s all, they’re pushing, pushing, pushing, somebody needs to talk to your parents. I am sure they would rather have you around getting C’s or D’s than not have you around and think ‘Well she would have got A’s.’”

When the danger has passed, Briggs tries to address the parents personally. “I say ‘Hey, I’m no better than anybody else, I just want to make you aware. This is why they are doing this.’ And then sometimes it hits them so hard it just knocks them back. They don’t realize the pressure and stress they are putting on [their] kid. So to get them back, to get them together, you just know it’s going to work out.”

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That is why Briggs sticks with his job, despite the possibility of emotional trauma. “I’m happy as all get out when I can get someone to come back over,” he said.

As for the one person Briggs ended up losing, it was a very emotional experience. “I teared up right when he did it. It was heartbreaking,” Briggs said. “I wish we could….let people know there is a lot of help out here. There are a lot of people who will talk to you.”

Briggs went up to the top of the Golden Gate Bridge tower to talk one determined individual out of giving up. In the presence of the SWAT team, the man decided not to jump and, like hundreds of others, agreed to come down and seek help.

After many years of work in this field, Briggs has come to one conclusion: “Times can get crappy but I can tell you I’ve had a lot of medical problems. It’s nice to just hang out and watch the blue sky,” he said. “Take it easy. Take one day at a time.”