For more than 23 years, California Highway Patrol Officer Kevin Briggs patrolled the famous Golden Gate Bridge day in, day out.
Although Briggs was trained to handle traffic incidents on the bridge, as soon as he got started he realized that there was much more to the job than he’d anticipated. What he didn’t know at the time is that the Golden Gate Bridge is one of the most popular suicide destinations in the world.
Rising 746 feet above the frigid waters of San Francisco Bay, the bridge seems to beckon to troubled and clinically depressed people who have decided to end their lives. With numerous fatalities each year, it was only a matter of time before Officer Briggs was called to the scene of someone attempting to end their life.
“There were four to six cases of suicidal folks on the bridge each and every month. And I had no idea about this, and I grew up in Marin County, which connects to San Francisco via that Golden Gate Bridge… I had no training to handle these types of situations,” Briggs explained.
The first time Officer Briggs found a woman on the wrong side of the bridge’s rail was back in 1994, and he admits that with no suicide prevention training he “did about everything wrong that you could.”
“In the back of my mind, I was thinking, ‘Am I responsible if she does jump? What happens here? I had no training in this. This is a really bad scene.’… I was afraid.”
The officer quickly learned what to do, and what not to do when faced with a suicidal person. He says what he discovered is that everyone who has reached the end of their rope really just needs someone to listen and empathize with them.
“I think my approach right from the start was wrong. Just to walk up right to those folks and start talking with them. Now what I do is I stand back and I’ll just introduce myself. I’ll say ‘Hi I’m Kevin’ or ‘I’m Kevin with the Highway Patrol, is it okay, is it alright if I come up and speak with you for a bit?’ I want to get their permission and empower them.”
“I try to explain to them, wow that sounds really tough. And normalize their situation. That’s a real big one, is to try to normalize their situation. You know, ‘Wow, what you’re going through is a whole lot of stuff and that’d be tough on anybody. I think anyone going through all that might be thinking about suicide.’”
Over the next two decades, Briggs would wind up saving the lives of over 200 people, earning himself the title “Guardian of the Golden Gate Bridge.” Incredibly, he says he did it all simply by listening to people. One of the people he talked down is Kevin Berthia, who credits Officer Briggs and God for helping him make the decision not to end his life one day on the bridge.
Kevin had climbed over the rail that day with every intention of jumping. His daughter had been born prematurely and the family had racked up $250,000 in hospital bills. Deeply depressed and full of despair, Kevin stood with his head down and threatened Officer Briggs every time he came close.
“He was very, very, very angry,” Briggs explained, “And he wanted nothing to do with me. And he kept yelling at me ‘Stay back! Stay back, if you come one step further I’m jumping!’ And he was very serious about this. In my mind, if I took one step further then he was gone.”
The two spent 90 minutes discussing Kevin’s problems, with Officer Briggs contributing only a few words of kindness or encouragement throughout. Kevin did most of the talking, and at the end of the discussion, he made the courageous decision to climb back over the railing and face his depression head-on.
“It takes a lot of courage to be over that rail. It takes a lot of courage. But it also takes a lot of courage to come back and face the reality that is with them right now. But there is a brighter side to this, and it can happen, and it might take a long time and a lot of work. But life is beautiful and, you know, it is worth living.”
Kevin and Officer Briggs are now friends, and Kevin works as a suicide prevention specialist and motivational speaker. He also wrote the Afterword in Briggs’s new book, “Guardian of the Golden Gate: Protecting the Line Between Hope and Despair.”
Since retiring from the California Highway Patrol in 2013, Officer Briggs has also focused his career around suicide prevention. Using the tools and experiences he learned on the Golden Gate Bridge, Briggs now tours the country to help others understand how and why someone would turn to suicide as a last resort — and what we can do to change their minds.
Please share this story to remind people that there is always hope if we make the decision to just hang on, and there’s always someone who’s willing to listen.