Last Friday night, Duke NeuroCare, an on-campus organization devoted to raising awareness about neurological and psychiatric disorders and their prevention, hosted a talk by Sgt. Kevin Briggs, a retired California Highway Patrol officer. Briggs patrolled the southern end of San Francisco’s Golden Gate bridge, a popular place for suicide attempts, for almost 20 years; in his talk, he recounted his experiences and the lessons he took away from them, even chronicling some of his personal adversities. After the talk, The Chronicle sat down with Briggs to talk about his experiences and how the lessons he learned can be applied to a college campus.
The Chronicle: You’ve been very open about the fact that you were not a stranger to suicide even before your work on the Golden Gate bridge. Did any of your personal tragedies affect your decision to go into law enforcement and did you ever imagine this is where your work would lead you?
Kevin Briggs: I really wanted to get into law enforcement, I didn’t know what area. I went into corrections first and I thought, if I could go on the outside, I would much rather be on the outside as a cop. So, I tried it and I got into something I really like, I like to be specialized, and that’s what highway patrol is. I had no idea I’d be working with suicidal folks on the Golden Gate bridge and absolutely no idea I’d be right here today. This is way off base; I’m a traffic cop, so to be out here and doing this and to do a TED talk and magazines and a book is way past me, it’s been extremely humbling.
TC: Initially, it must have been shocking to realize that suicide prevention was going to be a part of your daily life. Did you ever consider trying to switch to transfer to a different area?
KB: No. This is what occurs on that bridge and I thought, well, if I can help people this is a great way of helping someone, this is their darkest day. So I thought I’d better get some training and learn how to do this better; I was very interested in it. Cops do a lot of different things— some people to SWAT, some want to get a drug dog, some people want to fly a helicopter— but I wanted to do this, I wanted to get into negotiations, so I found it very fascinating.
TC: You’ve talked a lot about how important hope is in situations like the ones you deal with. How did you stay hopeful knowing that despite all your efforts, there will probably be another person on that bridge the next week?
KB: Because if I was not here— and I’m not going to take any credit for anything— but if we can get other people talking about it, it’s going to go down. We can help each other out, so if I can come and spread the word and get other people to listen, we can start talking about it. It’s not dinner table conversation, it’s not a fun conversation, but if we can at least get people to recognize some of the signs, symptoms, to think “that person might be struggling,” even if that person might not be suicidal, we can at least spread awareness.
TC: In your experience, are the people who you’ve worked with more often people with severe mental illnesses or seemingly average people who have just been hit with hard times?
KB: Most of them are just average folks, most do suffer from a mental illness, but I’ve seen very few who are psychotic or going through a psychotic episode. Most of them have depression, but very very few people will— if they don’t suffer from a mental illness— just have had something happen in their life and they jump.
TC: Mental health is a huge issue on college campuses. What do you think universities can improve upon in order to help lower the amount of students experiencing mental health issues?
KB: What happened here tonight was great. Not just me, as a speaker, but having somebody come to talk about what the audience can do to help themselves and help each other. If they had a class like this for the people who were coming in [to the university], people who were interested— and anyone who has been impacted by suicide will want to hear it— they’ll learn some good stuff.
TC: So you retired and started your organization, Pivotal Points. Can you tell us a little more about that?
KB: I retired early from the Highway Patrol, at age 50, to come out and do this. It took me quite a while to come up with a name for the business, but I thought “Pivotal Points” is pretty neat because it’s a pivotal point in people’s life. And it doesn’t even have to be a pivotal point like life vs. death— what college are you going to, where are you going to work— there’s a lot of little pivotal points in life. So now I am afforded the privilege of going around the world and speaking about mental illness and suicide and crisis management, and it’s been a honor to be able to do this. It’s something I wish I didn’t have to do, but if people want to talk about it and to learn, then I can share some stuff with them. A lot of my therapy is talking about it afterwards and so if people want to do that, that’s what they really ought to do.
TC: Being stressed out, binge drinking and erratic sleep schedules tend to be common on college campuses, regardless of whether a person is suffering from mental illness or not. What other ways would someone be able to tell if someone around them is going through something?
KB: If they deviate from their norm. If what they’ve been doing, time and time again, changes; if they give away their belongings or say something like “it doesn’t matter, I won’t be here next month,” it’s a lot of little things that we may not even pick up on. But if you have a good friend and you know what they do and they deviate from that— maybe they’re just having a bad mental health day, we all do, two or three— but when that starts going into two weeks, it becomes something we need to talk about.
TC: What’s the most important thing you can say to a student who may be silently suffering from a mental illness and/or contemplating suicide?
KB: There is help. There is hope. You’re not in this alone.
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