“Show me where you jumped.”
Trying to overcome the vertigo and nausea, he showed his father the exact rail.
It was the first time Kevin Hines had been to the Golden Gate Bridge in a year since his suicide attempt on Sept. 25, 2000.
As father and son stood overlooking the bay, they held hands. Together they prayed and then dropped a purple tulip off the rail’s edge. The tulip slowly wafted down 220 feet. As it settled on the ocean’s surface, a sea lion popped its head out of water.
Fifteen years later, Hines, 34, travels the world sharing his story of recovery and hope following his suicide attempt. His journey has been featured in his own memoir, “Cracked, Not Broken: the Kevin Hines Story,” and the documentary film, “The Bridge,” by Eric Steel.
On Monday, Nov. 16, Hines visited Western to speak about living mentally well to an audience of approximately 200 people in the Viking Union Multi-Purpose Room.
Surviving the fall
At 19 years old, two years after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Hines leapt from the Golden Gate Bridge.
An estimated 1,600 people have jumped off the bridge to their deaths since its opening in 1937, according to the Bridge Rail Foundation. Hines is one of 34 people to survive the fall; he is one of the less than one percent, according to the Kevin Hines story website.
If Hines could go back to that moment, he said he would tell his teenage self, “Today is not tomorrow, Kevin, and just because you’re in this much pain doesn’t mean it’s going to last forever.”
As soon as his feet left the ground, Hines regretted his decision.
“I’ll never forget being in the water and praying, ‘God, please save me. I don’t want to die. God, please save me. I don’t want to die. I made a mistake.’ When I finished that prayer was when a creature started circling me,” he said.
Hines thought that creature was a shark. But years later, a man contacted him after recognizing Hines’ name and story on television.
The man wrote that he had been two feet away from Hines when he jumped and that the animal beside him was not a shark, but a sea lion.
Hines credits three miracles for keeping him alive in the frigid water: a sea lion bumping him afloat, a woman passing by who called the Coast Guard and a top surgeon who wasn’t supposed to be working that day.
“I give it up to God because there’s so many things that came into play to save my life,” Hines said.
A few months out of the hospital, Hines gave his first presentation about suicide to a group of seventh and eighth grade students.
“I saw 120 kids sitting cross-legged on the floor, and I was petrified,” Hines said. “My hands were shaking, I was crying already before I even started because it was such a raw, emotional state.”
Weeks after his presentation, 120 letters from the students in the audience appeared on his doorstep. Some wrote they were actively suicidal. Because all of the letters were screened, those children received help, and Hines knows they’re still alive today, he said.
That was Hines’ first and only speech in 2001. Today, he gives more than 100 every year.
Farrah Greene-Palmer, Western’s suicide prevention grant manager, wonders how many people regretted taking their own lives one instant too late.
“There’s that instant when the impulse to die is higher than the desire to live,” Greene-Palmer said. “It’s just that moment. If we can break that moment, we can get them help.”
Greene-Palmer manages the campus suicide prevention program, Building Resistance and Voicing Empathy, providing resources for survivors and friends, mental health and outreach events, and referrals for long-term counseling.
Western hired Greene-Palmer in February 2014 after the university was awarded a three-year $294,948 grant for suicide prevention from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, according to Western Today.
BRAVE uses an approach called “upstream suicide prevention.” The approach aims to prevent the development of suicidal thoughts before students become at-risk.
A 2014 survey found 12 percent of Western students admitted to thinking about suicide in the past year, and 60 percent reported higher than average or extreme stress, according to the National Health College Assessment.
Greene-Palmer believes those numbers indicate the need for helping students before suicide ever becomes an option, she said.
“Why are we waiting until they’re at the top of the cliff?” she said. “We should be helping them when they’re still at home packing.”
Western typically experiences two or three suicides during the academic year. When the BRAVE program was developed in 2014, that number dropped to zero, according to Enrollment and Student Services.
Their online, avatar-based program called Kognito sets up interactive scenarios, in which users engage with a friend in distress, and learn how people react to different answers.
BRAVE intern Corinne Sudduth has taken all three versions of the Kognito training for at-risk students, veterans and LGBTQ people, she said.
“It’s the difference between saying, ‘Why are you in your room all day?’ versus “I’m really worried that you’re in your room all day.’”
Often, straightforward is the best approach. “Are you thinking of killing yourself?” is the first question to ask when concerned about a friend, Sudduth said.
Even if their answer is “no”, you should call someone anyway, Greene-Palmer said.
Senior Katie St. George works at BRAVE as program support staff, but that doesn’t mean she’s removed from the struggles she helps others with.
“There was a part of me that joined this program because of my own personal struggles, and by working with [BRAVE] I’ve discovered resources. I went to counseling, and now I know coping skills I didn’t know before,” St. George said.
In the midst of depression, St. George finds hope in knowing recovery is possible. She’s seen it in her own life when a family member was able to receive the proper treatment and support, she said.
“I’ve seen this individual go from the lowest you can be back to the person I knew,” St. George said.
St. George finds sources of hope in many different aspects of life. But today, she’s especially motivated by her labor relations internship, and looking ahead to her future career in human resources.
Hines hasn’t always been hopeful about the future. It’s a habit he formed over time, he said.
Today, seeing people choose life gives him hope beyond measure.
“It’s amazing to watch someone look at you and decide right then and there to do something different,” he said.
Although he lives with chronic suicidal thoughts, Hines said he will never die by suicide. His life’s work — to impact just one person in every audience he speaks to — is too important.
“This stuff fuels me. It gives me the ability to keep going. Everyone asks me, ‘Don’t you get tired? How did you keep your mental illness intact?’ It’s because of the work I do,” he said.