In March 2005, Kevin Berthia, then 22 years old and a young father, was depressed and struggling with thoughts of suicide. He had no job and worried about how to provide for his family. He went to the Golden Gate Bridge and contemplated jumping from the landmark.
Officer Kevin Briggs with the California Highway Patrol (CHP) received the call of a distressed individual on the bridge and made his way on his motorcycle. He has been responding to such calls for 20 years and has been called “The Guardian of the Bridge” because over the years he has saved hundreds from jumping.
When Berthia saw Briggs approaching him, he immediately climbed over the railing and stood on a small pipe, inches from falling. Briggs spent nearly one hour listening and talking with Kevin, gently and compassionately convincing him to climb back over to the safe side of the railing. The intervention worked. Today, Kevin Berthia is married, with two kids, a job and a home.
This is the lesser known story of the Golden Gate Bridge. Everyone knows that it is among one the most used landmarks for suicide in the world. Since it opened in 1937, more than 1,500 lives have been lost to suicide. However, very few people know the story of the dedicated men and women of the CHP, U.S. Park Police and bridge security officers who save lives every day.
This was the story AFSP aimed to share when honoring now Sgt. Briggs and the CHP with our Public Service Award at our 25th annual Lifesavers Dinner on May 13th. But how to tell this story became a topic of much discussion. If we honor Briggs and the CHP, would it bring even more attention to the Golden Gate Bridge and contribute to further suicide contagion? (Suicide contagion is a phenomenon in which additional suicides sometimes take place, inspired by sensationalistic reporting of the original suicide.) Who do we ask to present the award? A local politician? A celebrity? Or try to find someone who was rescued? If we invite someone who was talked out of jumping, would that make the story sensational and exploitative? Would telling this story be too emotional for the individual? If we invited a politician or celebrity, would the story have the same impact?
We decided to reach out to Sgt. Briggs and ask for his thoughts. He told us he could put us in touch with Kevin Berthia’s mother. (Perhaps this would be the balance we needed?) Although she was willing to present the award, Kevin’s mom suggested that we ask her son if he was willing to present it. To our surprise, Kevin expressed a sincere interest in coming to New York to present his “lifesaver” with our Lifesaver Award.
Yet, we were still hesitant. We were still concerned about the risk of contagion, about appearing exploitative, and the possible effect on Kevin Berthia himself. We had several conversations with him explaining that this could lead to media coverage, which would mean thousands of people could learn about his struggles with depression and past suicide attempt. But Kevin was insistent and wanted the opportunity to publicly thank Sgt. Briggs for saving his life and also to share his story.
AFSP decided to work on offering this story to the media, but we needed to find the right media organization and journalist to tell this story in such a way that would be safe, sensitive, hopeful and informative. After careful consideration, we contacted the Associated Press bureau in San Francisco and found a great reporter, Lisa Leff, who had covered the issue of suicide several times and was eager to tell this uplifting and hopeful story.
Although we always believed that this was an important story to tell, we could not have anticipated just how much media coverage would follow. Moments after the AP story posted online and ran in newspapers across the U.S., AFSP was receiving calls from national radio and TV shows, local news stations picked up the story, and journalists and bloggers alike were all seeking to interview Sgt. Briggs and Kevin Berthia. The ”Kevin and Kevin Story” was being shared virally through social media sites and before we knew it, it had become an international news story.
Too often, when suicide is reported in the media, the story is about a death and the devastation caused to the family, friends and community, but this story was about hope, it was about letting everyone know that suicide can be prevented, and it was about honoring the heroic work of our first responders and sharing a story of triumph.