Wednesday night kicked off Suicide Prevention week at the University of Connecticut as Kevin Berthia and Kevin Briggs shared their story of hope and healing at the Jorgensen Center for Performing Arts.
Ten years ago, Kevin Bethia decided to take his life, and climbed over the railing at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. Moments later, he heard the voice of Officer Kevin Briggs calling to him, offering help.
Kevin Briggs, a now retired sergeant, worked for the California Highway Control for 23 years. One of the major responsibilities of his job was to attend to people who thought about ending their lives by jumping off the bridge.
Briggs said that the first thing he always did before approaching an individual on the side of the bridge, was to ask permission to approach the individual. If they said no, he waited a couple of minutes and tried again. He would then get below their eye level when speaking to them in an attempt to empower them.
“It takes a lot of courage to come back over the rail, and once they do it’s like a moment of rebirth,” Briggs said.
In 2013, the year Briggs retired, 41,000 people lost their lives to suicide. That same year 32,000 people lost their lives in an automobile accident. Briggs points out that so much money is allocated to automobile safety every year, but nothing to that extent has gone into suicide prevention. This is something that needs to change, he said.
Briggs addressed the top myths associated with suicide which are as follows: it occurs without warning; if you talk about it, you’ll plant an idea in someone’s head; and people who attempt suicide are weak, selfish and crazy.
“Those people aren’t any of those things. They want to live, but they don’t see a way how,” he said.
The signs of suicidal thoughts, Briggs said, include a change in behavior or sleep patterns, misuse of drugs and alcohol and a feeling of hopelessness.
“People don’t seek help because they’re in denial. They’re embarrassed and they think if they avoid it, it’ll go away by itself,” Briggs said. “One suicide can lead to another.”
Briggs then introduced Bethia to the stage, informing the audience that today was Bethia’s 33rd birthday.
Bethia was diagnosed with depression when he was 19 years old after having a nervous breakdown. At the time, he knew nothing about depression.
“I grew up in Oakland, reputation is everything. You breathe by it, you live by it. You can’t show any weaknesses,” he said.
He said he needed to figure out how to cope and deal with his diagnosis. Due to the fact that he was a popular student in school, he chose to act like it didn’t exist.
At 13, his adoptive parents divorced, something he noted as a turning point in his young life.
As a result, Bethia developed abandonment issues and can still feel the pain of watching his dad walk out the door 20 years later.
“I 100 percent blamed myself for their divorce,” he said.
Throughout high school, Bethia never felt that he had a purpose. He distracted himself from his internal distress by playing five different sports. He thought that everything else wouldn’t matter as long as he had sports as a tonic.
At 19, after having an argument with a family member, he walked out of the house with a knife to his throat.
“I already established who I was in the world. I didn’t have a problem,” Bethia said.
After being taken to the hospital, doctors told him he was born with mental illness.
To treat his illness, he visited five different psychiatrists, who prescribed him five different psychiatric medications.
Doctors told him that he should be over everything that happened in the past and that those events shouldn’t continue to effect him.
At that moment, Bethia gave up and began denying that there was anything still wrong with him.
Bethia decided to return to school to get his life back on track. He wanted to show people that he was fine. He obtained two jobs and joined the soccer team at his college as a walk-on.
“Everything in my eyes was going right. I was too busy to worry,” said Bethia. “How could I have something (wrong) when I’m showing (doctors) everything you told me I don’t have.”
At 21, Bethia had his first child. All he wanted out of the world was to be a father.
“As long as I could be a great dad, it would compensate for everything else.”
What was supposed to be the happiest day of his life quickly became one of the worst. His daughter was born two months premature. It would be eight weeks until he could finally take her home.
He enjoyed her birth for two weeks before opening a $250,000 bill for his daughter’s stay at the hospital, and seven days later, he lost his job. Christmas was one month away, and he couldn’t afford one gift for his daughter.
“It took everything out of me. The next three months following that, I don’t even know who I was. I cut myself off from all my family and friends,” he said.
On March 11, 2005, Bethia woke up re-experiencing every painful moment he’d ever felt in his life. He didn’t have the strength anymore and couldn’t overcome his internal sadness.
At 22, he had never been to the Golden Gate Bridge. Not knowing that it was iconic for suicides, Bethia impulsively decided to visit for the first time.
Since he’d never been before, he needed directions. He hoped that maybe one person that he asked would ask him why he was going, but no one did. After a toll collector gave him directions, he felt better because he had a plan for the first time in his life.
“It (his suicide plan) had structure, which was something I never had,” he said.
Bethia drove up and found a parking spot immediately, which he took as a sign that suicide was meant to be because on any other day, there would likely be no free spots due to all the tourists.
He admitted that he was sad because no one was ever there to help him. He decided to make one last phone call to see if anyone would say something to discourage him from jumping.
There were no answers.
As he hung off the side of the bridge, a voice approached him.
Bethia shouted, “stay back” over and over again, but the voice was persistent and compassionate.
The voice was that of Officer Briggs.
“My biggest fear was to be judged. This was a moment I knew I would be judged for, but the compassionate voice came without any judgments,” Bethia said.
He stood on the side of the bridge for 92 minutes. For 89 minutes, he talked without being interrupted, never once looking up to see whom he was talking to. Briggs just listened.
A photo of Bethia hanging off the bridge made the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle the next day. He was now front and center and could no longer hide, Bethia said.
That day, he found the courage to seek clinical treatment.
After the photo was published, Bethia said he refused to accept the man in the photo was who he was. He ran from it, never wanting to talk about it or deal with it again. It took him eight years to finally be able to look at the photo again.
Eight years later, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention recognized the California Highway Patrol for their public service at an event in New York City. Briggs was the officer who accepted the award.
For the first time, Bethia shared his story at the event. It was the first time he went back to that moment, the first time he felt better, and the first time he looked at the photograph and said, “that’s me.”
To his surprise, he received an overwhelming amount of support that made him realize for the first time that he wasn’t alone.
“If I knew it would change the way I lived and I’d get so much out of it, I would have done something sooner,” he said.
Bethia used a quote by Leo Buscaglia to relay to the audience how they can help others.
“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around,” he quoted from Buscaglia.
“Listening is the reason why I am here today. It saved my life. Whether you realize it or not, it is a gift,” he said. “There’s nothing that we can’t do. These small things can save a life. Always be prepared to do these small acts of kindness because you never know who you can save.”
Bethia is living proof that even when you’re at your lowest, weakest and worst, you can dig yourself out.
“I accepted who I was, perfect with all my flaws and doors opened up for me. That can happen to you too if you do the same,” he said.
Fourth-semester nursing major Shannon Pflomm said she came to the event for her own personal well being, to learn how to help people around her.
“When you look as you walk about campus you can’t see anyone’s problems. It’s important that we not only talk about it, but learn how to help as well,” she said.