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Norwich — If any passerby had asked him, "Are you OK?" "Is something wrong?" or "Can I help you?" Kevin Hines might not have plunged 220 feet into the waters of San Francisco Bay that day in 2000.
"Those are the words I desperately needed to hear as I walked on that 4-foot walkway," he said, referring to the day he jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge in a suicide attempt driven by his struggles with bipolar disorder, paranoia, hallucinations and depression. Sometimes just a smile can pull someone back, he said.
"Each and every one of you has the innate ability to save a life, just by being kind," he told an audience of about 80 Three Rivers Community College students, faculty and staff, along with more than a dozen police officers from Norwich, New Haven and Windsor.
Since his miraculous survival - a sea lion, he believes, helped keep him afloat until the Coast Guard rescued him - Hines, now 32, has learned to face his mental illness head-on, and tells his story in a book published last year, "Cracked but Not Broken," as well as in talks like the one Thursday at Three Rivers. Sharing the program with him was Kevin Briggs, a retired California highway patrol officer who was among the first to respond after Hines' suicide attempt.
Briggs said about 60 people jump off the Golden Gate Bridge every year. Known as "the guardian of the Golden Gate Bridge" because of his success at convincing those threatening suicide not to jump, Briggs said most suicidal people will respond to a lifeline of caring and empathy, if someone gets to them in time.
"You have to stretch that time out, ask them open-ended questions and let their emotions calm down," Briggs said. "We get down at eye level. That's how we operate."
The unsuccessful encounters, Briggs said, affected him and other officers profoundly, often prompting them to seek counseling. He told of one day before his retirement when three people committed suicide at the bridge, including one 32-year-old man he'd been talking to for an hour before he jumped. Briggs has since connected with the man's family and plans to attend a suicide awareness walk in his honor in July.
"Why don't people get help? There's denial from the person and those around them, there's fear that they're going to lose their job, their friends, their way of life, and they're avoidance," he said. "They think it's going to go away, but it doesn't go away."
Both he and Hines are strong advocates of destigmatizing mental illness, urging listeners to seek counseling or encourage their loved ones to do so before their mental pain becomes overwhelming.
"Any one of you in this room right now who suffers mentally in any way, do not hold it in. Go to someone you love and trust and has empathy and ask for help," Hines said.
Hines and Briggs, called "the rock stars of the suicide prevention movement" by Karin Edwards, dean of students at Three Rivers, had never spoken together before Thursday's program. The two reconnected about a year ago, Briggs said, and were brought to Three Rivers as part of a series of mental health initiatives supported by a grant the college received two years ago. Two college counselors attending the program made themselves available to anyone in the audience who wanted to talk afterward.
Hines said that after spending the first year of his life in foster homes, he was adopted by a loving family and had a happy childhood.
"At 17 years old, it hit me like a Mack truck. Bipolar disorder," he said. "But I was able to pretend in front of my family and my psychologist that I was semi-OK. Why didn't I tell them the truth? I thought they were going to lock me up in a padded room with a straight jacket on."
Hines said he now takes responsibility for taking care of his mental illness, bringing himself to the hospital when he feels suicidal, taking medications religiously, following his doctors' advice, being honest with his wife when he's having hallucinations and drawing support from a peer group.
"I lived for a reason, and that is to talk about my issues with anyone who will listen," he said.