Sunday, June 12, 2016

Guardian of the Golden Gate: Interview with Kevin Briggs

[Episode 104] In today's episode of the Social Work Podcast I spoke with Kevin Briggs, retired Sergent with the California Highway Patrol. As part of his duties patroling Marin County, Sgt. Briggs responded to calls on the Golden Gate Bridge, one of the most lethal suicide spots in the world.

In April 2016 Sgt. Briggs and I talk about what it was like to be a negotiator working with people seconds away from jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge. Sgt. Briggs shared some of his strategies and his struggles working with hundreds of people, some of whom jumped and some of whom didn’t. He talked about getting famous and doing a TED talk. And then he shared something very personal – the story of how he found out that his son had been thinking of killing himself. Sgt. Briggs provides valuable insight in the professional and personal side of crisis work.

Download MP3 [35:50]

You can read more about his story in his book, Guardian of the Golden Gate and on his 2014 TED talk "The Bridge Between Suicide and Life."


[Episode 104] In today's episode of the Social Work Podcast I spoke with Kevin Briggs, retired Sergent with the California Highway Patrol. As part of his duties patroling Marin County, Sgt. Briggs responded to calls on the Golden Gate Bridge, one of the most lethal suicide spots in the world.

In April 2016 Sgt. Briggs and I talk about what it was like to be a negotiator working with people seconds away from jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge. Sgt. Briggs shared some of his strategies and his struggles working with hundreds of people, some of whom jumped and some of whom didn’t. He talked about getting famous and doing a TED talk. And then he shared something very personal – the story of how he found out that his son had been thinking of killing himself. Sgt. Briggs provides valuable insight in the professional and personal side of crisis work.

Download MP3 [35:50]

Jonathan Singer: Kevin, thank you so much for being here on the Social Work Podcast talking with us today.   Can you tell us what it was like being on highway patrol?
Kevin Briggs: Yes, actually thank you for having me.  Pleasure to do this.  Typically, we’ll get a call.  People will call in on 9-1-1 or there’s some phones on the bridge that go right to the Golden Gate Bridge’s sergeant’s office.  They have their own patrol unit, like security guards, and then they will immediately call us, and we will respond, or it’s a 9-1-1 call.  Sometimes we’ll have em where the person themselves will be calling 9-1-1 saying they need help.  And then we’ll respond, we’ll get the call and go out there.  Or just in patrolling, we may see someone who looks despondent.  Generally, they’re by themselves; they’re solo, and many times people are on just on vacation by themselves, they’re just out there to take pictures, but still we want to find out, we want to make sure they’re OK.  So we just have a general conversation with them, and if they’re doing OK, then hey, glad to meet you, ask them where they’re from, and we’re on our way. But sometimes there are those folks who are despondent and we’ll talk to them for a while.  Hopefully we can get them into the parking lot before they get up to the bridge.  But sometimes they’re over that rail and they’re standing on something we call the cord, which is a i-beam over that rail, and that’s when we’ve really got to get out stuff together and start focusing.  Typically if I’m going to be the one to do this negotiation, talking to this individual, I first start out preparing my mind, I say a little prayer on my way down, that everything is going to go smooth for us and for them.  And when I get there, I’m going to stop a little ways away from them, and kind of look over the scene a little bit and ask them, you know, can I come up there and speak with you?  And introduce myself; they see I’m wearing a uniform, they know I’m somebody of some sort, but I don’t say the Highway Patrol typically.  I say “Hi, I’m Kevin.  Can I come up and speak with you?”  Empowering them from the very start is very, very important to me, and I think it is to them also.  And also the clothing – I look at what they’re wearing.  It can get bitterly cold on that bridge, especially in the summer months really.  June, July, & August tend to be very foggy on that bridge so it can be very cold.  It could be noon out and still be miserably cold.  You go just a few miles north and it could be 85, 90 degrees.  But just on that bridge, all that weather funnels into that.  My point to this is, if that persons just wearing a t-shirt, or a shirt and not a jacket, then I want to be like that also.  I want to feel what they’re feeling.  I think that’s important.  So I won’t wear my jacket, and it will help, because they’ll see me shivering, and I know they’re shivering, so I’ll say “Man, it’s cold.  Why don’t we get out of here and get some hot chocolate or something?” And, you know, we start like that.       

Jonathan Singer: You’re really taking this idea of connecting with that person to a level that I think most people wouldn’t even imagine when working with someone in crisis.  Like you’re literally saying, I’m not going to wear my jacket, I’m not going to be comfortable so that they know I’m just a little bit closer to where they are.  

Kevin Briggs: I think that’s important.  I think many times, maybe these folks have spoken with a lot of people, but those people are always uncomfortable.  They’re behind their desk; they have their degrees; they have everything else; they know what’s going on; whereas this person is suffering.  Well I want to say, “I’m suffering too.”  I’m going to be out there, I’m just another Joe like you out here.  Let’s see how we can help each other out.    

Jonathan Singer: Can you walk us through one of the calls that you got?

Kevin Briggs: Absolutely.  Shortly before I retired, I retired in November of 2013, on July 22 of that year, we received a call of a man, what we say, over the rail – over the pedestrian rail.  He was on that cord, on that I-beam.  And I was the supervisor, I responded from the office down to the bridge, and it just so happened that the officers assigned to work that area were busy.  They weren’t able to respond right then.  So I was the first CHP person there.  And when I got there, there was already a Golden Gate Bridge security guard there speaking with the gentleman over the rail.  And that person, his name was Jason Garber, he was 32 years old, he was from New Jersey, had actually flown out to the bridge three times, this being his third time.  From New Jersey all the way to San Fransisco, to the Golden Gate Bridge where he wanted to attempt suicide.  So the particular bridge officer was doing a great job.  He’s been around for a while.  Very empathetic.  Very intelligent.  Doing a great job.  So I kind of backed him up a little bit, and I would go in now and again, but it turned out Jason, to me, was a very intelligent individual.  He was the gentleman over the rail.  He had suffered from mental illness for many, many years.  And these are the three sort of things I see all the time:  folks suffering from mental illness, going off of their medication, which he had, and feeling like they’re a burden to their family, which he felt.  Those three things I see quite frequently.  And that’s what was going on with Jason.  Jason was not wearing a jacket, so of course I wasn’t wearing mine.  And this was in the late afternoon, July, and it was getting quite cold out, but it wasn’t foggy that day so we were very lucky.  As we developed this, what I thought, a rapport with Jason, he was very articulate in his speech.  You could tell the man was educated, he was a poet, a writer, and he was really, really neat to talk to.  At one point I remember the Golden Gate Bridge officer telling Jason, “Jason, you should be on this side, talking to folks over the rail.”  That’s how intelligent this man seemed. But he was suffering, and this is what happens to folks, they feel like they’re stuffed in the corner by themselves and that this is the only alternative that they have.  So as we progressed with this, Jason, we see his emotions going up and down, up and down.  And as negotiators we try to really stretch the time out by talking with these folks, open-ended questions and all these things. 

Jonathan Singer: And why do you stretch the time out?

Kevin Briggs:  Because many, many times folks are, their levels of emotions are very, very high, and as humans we can’t maintain that high emotion for a long time, so we try to stretch that time out.  If they will tell us the story of what’s going on in their life, then, boom, it allows for that time, to break down, those emotions to come down, letting that more rational thought come up.  And that’s what we try to do.  That’s in theory, anyway.  And we go by, what I teach, and what I’ve been taught, is the 80/20 principle.  If they’re talking, we let them talk 80 percent of the time, and we will talk just 20 percent of the time.  And that’s ideal.  That’s something that we really try to stress.  And Jason would answer most of our questions.  He was just having a very hard time, and he’d had enough.  At one point, about an hour or so into this, Jason asked us if we knew the story of Pandora’s box, which is very unique, because I’ve never had anyone ask something like that out there.  And that threw me.  And we said yes.  But then Jason had been getting text and phone calls.  He had actually thrown out an email, typed an email to his friends to go out about the time he thought he’d be on the bridge.  And that’s exactly what occurred.  So here’s this phone which he had in his lap, and his phone is ringing and buzzing, doing all that.  And he would look at it, never answer it.  He would be happy, then he would be sad.  A tear would come out.  He was going through all these emotions, but he would never answer the phone.  But when he asked us about Pandora’s box, and we said yes.  And we know about Pandora’s box, with the box that she opens up, and all these bad things come out: these sorrows, and plagues, and things.  The only good thing in that box was hope.

Well, Jason, as profound as he was, as intelligent as he was, he says, “When I open the box, hope is the greatest evil.”  There was no hope for this guy.  Hope was, you know, just always out of reach. And that threw me back.  I have never heard that before.  That’s how amazing this young man was.  So I stepped back a little bit, and I’m pondering this, and trying to think, well OK, what can I say about this?  It really stumped me.  And it was couple of minutes, and then, as I’m looking at Jason, you know, I see one single tear.  He had been crying off and on.  But at this point I see a tear just come out of his right eye, and go down his cheek, and he was sitting on this I-beam, straddling it.  And he just leans to his right, and he’s gone.  Falls all the way down to the water.  I watched him go, which you’re not supposed to do, but I always do, because for one, I want to mark the body.  It’s kind of mountainous areas on both sides that come in and funnel the water to and fro, with the tides and all.  And they’re treacherous.  We lose bodies quickly.  So when these instances occur, we call the Coast Guard, and they come out, and they position themselves just a little ways east of the bridge.  Most folks go off of the east side, looking towards the bay and Alcatraz.  So they were right there on the spot.  We throw out a marker, a flare marker, which throws up smoke, so that marks the body.  Even though the Coast Guard was right there, I still want to mark that body.  I don’t want to lose that body if possible.  It’s very important, you know, for the family and the whole bit.  So we do that; the Coast Guard picks up the body, and they bring him back to the Coast Guard station.  I step back.  I’m with the Golden Gate Bridge officer, and we’re kind of stumped on this.  I thought we were in the middle of this.  Now, it can go bad at any time, I know this.  He knows this.  We’ve seen this.  But I thought we were in the middle of this thing, still talking for a while.  It really upset us.  I mean, it would at the final point of anybody going.  But we weren’t ready for this particular act at this time.  But as we’re standing there, just trying to take this all in, and I’m worried about the officers on both sides because we stopped the pedestrian traffic on the sidewalk of the bridge, so I want to make sure they’re doing OK, a gentleman comes running up and to me, and he goes, “Officer, there’s a body in the water.”  And I was pissed.  “What the hell do you think I’ve been doing for an hour?”  And he goes, “No, another one.”  Now we were in the middle of the bridge, the midpoint of the bridge, when this happened, this instance.  Up at the north tower another gentleman had jumped at just around the same time.  So I responded up there on a motorcycle, takes a couple of minutes to get there, and bridge responded also, and they have those flare markers.  And when I get there I see the body floating in the water out into the bay.  I immediately call for the Coast Guard.  They can’t respond because they’re busy with Jason’s body.  So we have the marker out, you see the marker floating out into the bay, plus Jason’s marker which was from midspan, and I took a couple of photos to try and mark everything.  Here’s comes a big container ship, full of containers, and it ran over that body, not to be found.  So when people look up statistics about the bridge, and they say 35 people died this year or something, a lot of times that’s not right.

And I tell them it’s not right because when a body is not discovered, ilke this one that was ran over by this big ship, it’s not counted.  Marin County Coroner, which handles these cases, only takes a number when they have a body.  So if there’s not a body, there’s not a number.  So folks who are like, “Ah, Briggs doesn’t know what he’s talking about”, well, this is why.  So in that year that I retired there were close to 60 folks that we lost off of that bridge.  And that’s not even including the folks that we take off for mental health evaluations.  Now this takes a heavy toll on the officers, but I always tell folks, “Let’s forget that for a minute.  What about the family and friends?” So after this, I go back to the office, and Jason was from New Jersey, like I said.  I want the family to be notified.  I know in my mind, this is Jason Garber.  I had his ID.  He told me his parent’s name, his telephone number.  I had everything about this guy.  So in my mind, that’s Jason.  But I know the coroner would not be contacting the family until they had their fingerprints, dental records, whatever they needed to identify him – might be a couple of days.  I didn’t think that was right.  I’m thinking, if that was my little boy, I want to know right now.  So I called up a local police department in New Jersey, and this was around 8:30pm in the evening pacific time.  It’d be 11:30pm back east.  I call the local police department and ask them, “Can you do a notification for me, please?”  And we talk for a little while, and they go, “Oh yeah, we’ll handle that.”  Puts me on hold; comes back in a couple of minutes, confirms everything with me, the name and all that, and he goes, “His father’s here right now filing a missing person’s report.”  And this goes back to that email that Jason had sent out.  They find out about that; they go to the police department, the family, because now they’re going to order out to look for this kid.  So I get on the phone with his father, and I was feeling very guilty.  In my mind, I’m thinking that he’s mad at me.  I failed; I didn’t do the job, but he wasn’t.  But he was very stern in his voice.  His son had just passed away.  What could be worse than that?  Anything that I could think of.  And I’m feeling horrible, pretty emotional.  I think he realized that, and after a half an hour or however long we spoke, he tells me, “Now I have to go tell my wife.  When I get home I’m going to call you back.”  Pretty strict and stern like this.  I say “Yes sir.”  I was supposed to be going home right when this happened, but who cares?  It doesn’t matter.  Now we have this to handle.  So I wait another half hour or so, and he calls me back, and he’s trying to get more information out of me, and ask me “What would we do?” and all this.  But it’s just his way, that I found out later on.  He’s just a stern man, a good man, it’s just his way.  And I could Mrs. Garber, Jason’s mother, just wailing in the background, and it’s just horrible.  We tried our best.  I wondered what we could have done different.  We let this happen.  These things happen.  We know these things are going to happen to us.  It doesn’t sit with us any better though.  So that night, to be totally honest, it sucked for me.  I’m sure it was terrible for the family, but for me, it was bad.  I keep replaying it in my mind, as I do today.  What could we do different?  What could I have done different?  Maybe nothing.  He came out here three times to do this act.  Boom.  He did it.  But I think the empathy… this weighs on you.  But that next day was quite memorable for me because I come back into work.  Jason’s father said he was going to call and speak with me that next day.  When I came into work, there was a phone call for me.  I’m expecting it’s Jason’s father, and we’re going, “OK, I’m going to have to relive this thing again.  But it’s for the family.  You have to do this.  But it’s not.  It turns out it’s their family rabbi.  And he explains who he is.  He had worked with police departments before, talking to families about death notifications and things, so he was aware of how things go, and how officers think somewhat.  And I tell him what’s going on, and I remember being pretty emotional on the phone.  And he goes, “Kevin.  Listen to me.  If you ever stop feeling the way that you do right now, get the hell out of the business, because you’re no use to anybody.”  And that helped me.  That really did.  And that’s pretty much exactly how he said that.

So we talked for a while, and I think that helped me through this whole thing.  But, you know, just dealing with the family, I actually flew out there, I was speaking out there on the East coast, and I had some time.  I rented a car, and I went to meet the family.  And it was at a memorial for Jason - around a lake that he would run around.  So we walked around the late, and I met his family and friends and such.  And then the Garbers invited me to dinner that evening.  And of course I accepted.  I thought, “Alright, this will be family and friends.  Hopefully I can meet the rabbi.”  I thought it’d be more of a celebration of life.  But it turned out to be not that.  It was just Mr. & Mrs. Garber and myself.  Ah, this is gonna be tough.  This is gonna be really tough.  I still gotta do you. You have to do it.  So I go to the house, and Mrs. Garber doesn’t say very much.  She’s cordial, but she just doesn’t say much.  Mr. Garber says a whole lot of stuff. And he never once blamed me, he actually thanked me for being there.  He says, “I’m glad Jason had you there, and the other bridge officer.”  That helped, but Jason, he was a phenomenal person.   He showed me lots of Jason’s writings and everything, and drawings, and things Jason has done.  He was an amazing individual. He just suffered from mental illness.  And I tell folks, no matter who you are, if you’re suffering, you can get to that point.  The highest educated to the lowest educated.  Whether you’re a billionaire or have no money, it doesn’t matter who you are.  You can get to that point.  I’ve seen it.  The families suffer.  And to this day, it has taken a heavy, heavy toll on Mr. Garber.  He no longer works.   Basically he’s around that house, looking at Jason’s drawings, his literature, and things that Jason has done.  And I tell folks – this is what suicide does to folks.  It wrecks families.  So if you think that your pain is gone because you’re gone, and you’re not going to be causing any more pain to your family, you’re not.  You’re putting more pain onto your family.  (pause)  People say the ripple effect of a suicide, it’s not.  It’s a tsunami.  It devastates families.  And that’s how I feel, and that’s really what happens. 

Jonathan Singer: So I read in your book, Guardian of the Golden Gate, about how you started to get media attention as result of your work doing suicide prevention on the bridge, and this led to a TED talk.  Can you tell us what it was like to do a TED talk?

Kevin Briggs: Sure.  And I remember the phone call.  It happened in December.  I take most of Decembers off.  I enjoy Christmas time.  Really big fan of that.  And I remember it was the Yahoo! News segment that really kicked everything off.  I received some calls at home saying there’s a lot of people calling in because that Yahoo! News segment came out December 5th, on my birthday.  That’s the only reason I can remember that.  But I remember getting lots of calls at home saying there’s a lot of people who want to see you and talk to you.  Me?  Why?  So I stop in at work one day, and I listen to my messages, and one of them is for a TED talk.  And I didn’t really comprehend it.  I had not watched many TED talks, if any.  I didn’t even really know what TED was about.  I had heard about it, but, I tell folks, to be honest with you, I hadn’t really heard of it.  So I asked one of my mentors, and some other people, and they were all over me, “You call them back right now!  What do you think you’re doing?  That’s huge! Call them back!”  So I’m like, OK!  I call them back, “Hi.  This is Kevin Briggs.”  We settle up.  I said,  “Sure, I’d be happy to do it.”  And I had done very, very little public speaking, so this TED talk was one of my first ones.  We practice online a couple times with the folks.  I wrote a speech out.  I had a little help from a couple of people, and I know what I wanted to convey.  But I didn’t know if other people wanted to hear.  But this is what they wanted.  And we went over it a few times, practiced, and then I went to Vancouver.  It was the first year they were having the actual TED, they had moved it to Vancouver.  And I’m brand-new to all of this.  I was staying in a hotel, a phenomenal hotel.  And I go over, and I go inside, and there’s people everywhere.  And as I’m talking to people, it’s really neat because even though there’s lots and lots of people there, when you stand next to someone, you immediately start talking to them.  Everyone is very friendly - whether you’re a Harvard graduate or a juggler on the street.  Everybody talks to everybody.  It’s very unique.  I haven’t seen that before.  As a cop, we’re always, you know, you hold back a little bit, and you’re always watching everybody.  This was a really, really an amazing experience.  And I practiced there.  My talk was not until Friday.  It’s a week-long deal that TED is.  My talk was not until Friday, and I was the last person in the morning session.  So I had all week.  And I went and saw some talks, but most of my time I spent up in my room practicing.  So I missed a lot of TED, but it helped because I practiced, practiced, practiced.  I knew what I wanted to convey, and I knew I wanted it to be real true – my feelings coming out.  And showing folks, “This is what it’s like.”  So on the day of the TED talk I had practiced so much, here comes my time to go up on stage, and I walk up on stage.  And I start talking, and my memory is not very good at all these days.  But I had practiced so much, and I know I conveyed it with my emotions that things are coming out of my mouth as I’m stepping… and I had difficultly remembering a couple of parts of what I wanted to say.  But it all came out as I wanted to do it.  And I remember walking on the stage, and going, “OK, walk right, walk over here a little bit.  Turn left.  Look over here.  Look over here.  I’m doing a TED talk!”  All of this is going through my mind as I’m talking.  As I’m doing this.  It was the weirdest thing.  It hasn’t happened after that. 

But it was just very strange. And, you know, really, something before this that I wanted to tell you – seeing these folks and realizing who was there, I did a lot of protective services details for presidents: for Gore and these presidents.  I have pictures with them, you know, they walk down the line and shake your hand and say hi.  Well, Gore was there.  Sting was there.  All these folks.  They throw a dinner for the speakers, and anyone who wants to come and attend and learn a little more about you can.  So these folks came and wanted to know a little bit more about what I had done.  And these folks?  I had Harvard graduates, well, most of them.  And I go, ah my god.  I had very little education.  I got my school of hard knocks type of thing.  So, I was kind of intimidated there.  All these folks there – a lot of high rollers.  To me it was the movers and shakers of the world.  It was really, really something.  Phenomenal.  This one gentleman I had breakfast with told me, really tall guy, like six foot five, and talking with him, very, very nice gentleman who lived in, I believe, North Carolina – he had sold his oil company in Texas, for, I believe, $35 billion.  Billion dollars.  He said, you know what, I didn’t get that much money.  But he says, you know, I’m doing OK.  But he didn’t throw it in my face.  It wasn’t egotistical, it was just the way he did it.  Very nice man.  So I confided in him. I go, “You know what – all these people around here, most of these folks are very highly educated and doing very, very well.” (pause)  I’m a traffic cop.  I don’t even know if I should be here.”  So he goes, “Kevin, look around.”  He goes, “Take a look. Do you think anyone else here has saved a person’s life?”  So he really helped me.  He really did.  The TED experience was phenomenal.  I’m so grateful to Chris Anderson, the curator, for allowing me to do this.  And it was just a wonderful, wonderful experience.  (26:06)

Jonathan Singer: What that guy said to you I think is so important because at the end of the day, it isn’t about how much money we have or, you know, how important other people think we are.  It’s about the lives that we save and the lives that we touch.  And you have clearly done that, which is why they invited you to the TED talk.    

Kevin Briggs: Well, it was very unique experience, and I’m so grateful. And now I get to travel and talk to folks when they’ll have me.  Anywhere from law enforcement negotiation conferences or mental health or military - whatever it may be.  And many times I get introduced as, “Hey, this is Kevin Briggs.  He saved so many hundreds of people’s lives.”  But I don’t want to say something about it to that when I first go up.  But I say, “You know what, I haven’t really saved anybody.  I think I’ve been there on maybe people’s darkest day of their lives, and I was a conduit to help them.  And that’s the big thing is to empower those folks.  I don’t grab people, when they’re over that rail.  I want them, on their own, to think about it and come back on their own.  I think that starts their life off brand new.  They did it.  They accepted everything knowing that I didn’t fix any of their problems, any of their issues.  But they can come back and face them, and say “You know what, I do want to live.  I’m gonna try this another day.”  And it’s very, very important. 

Jonathan Singer: What are some things that you say to people on the bridge that you think are helpful? 

Kevin Briggs:  I talk about their life.  I talk about their past.  One of the things is:
“Can you tell me a time in your past, I’m sure there is some, most times, when you were happy?  When things were going smooth?  When everything was going along all right, and you were smiling, and the day is good, and you want to be around – you’re happy.”
And almost every time they’ll have something in the past.  So to prolong that time out, and they’ll tell me their story, which is phenomenal – well it gets them thinking.  And then I say,
“Well, why don’t you think that can happen again?” 
And sometimes they’ll have some good reasons why.  And I’ll say,
“Well, let’s talk about that for a little while.” 

And I’m not gonna fix anything.  I’ll tell them that.  I can’t.  I would be lying to them.  And I’m not going to lie.  If I promise them a steak dinner when they come back over, boy, I guess we’re stopping for steak dinners.  But to get them thinking about, I want them to think about what’s going on in their life, how it got to that level, and how we can maybe turn this around a little bit.  That there is folks that care, starting with me.  When I look at them, I do that cursory search type of thing, seeing if there’s any weapons on them, but then I’m really just looking at their face.  And all I want them to see is my face.  To show – here is somebody who cares.  It starts with me.  Now there’s a lot of folks that care over there, maybe you just haven’t run into them yet.  Let’s see if we can get you some folks.  And that the biggest thing, you know, many of these people feel that they’re all alone and nobody’s going through what they’re going through and that it’s just not going to get any better.  Well, I’m hoping it does get better.  I’m praying it does get better.  At least let’s have the opportunity to do that.  You know, unfortunately, a number of people come up there under the influence of drugs or alcohol.  But I use that also.          
“Brother, you can come up here any day you want.  Any day you want.  But wouldn’t you want to come up here when you’re sober?  Would you let a loved one drive under the influence?” 
Of course they say no, they wouldn’t want that. 
“Well, why not?”
“Because they could hurt themselves.  They could hurt someone else.”
“Because your thinking’s impaired.” 
“Well to me, right now, your thinking’s impaired.  This is a pretty big deal, right here, right?  Wouldn’t you want to be here, at least, if you’re gonna do this, sober?” 
And I let them think about that for a while, and..
“Well, uh, I think you’re right.”
So at least we know if we can get them off of that day and through that crisis, many, many times they’re gonna be much better. 

Jonathan Singer: So after you had become known as the Guardian of the Golden Gate, and you had achieved really international recognition as someone who had saved people’s lives, you write in your book, you find out that your own son had been thinking about killing himself.  Can you tell us about that?

Kevin Briggs:  Sure, sure.  And I talk about this first as cops, first responders, those in the mental health field, I think we’re all in a bond with this particular one together, because we always want to give, give, give and help everyone else.  But a lot of times I think we miss what’s happening to us, our own health, and we miss what’s happening with our families.  And this is exactly what happened to me.  I was asked to go speak now at a lot of different places, so I’m flying around, talking about everything that’s going on, all these stories, and it’s happening at home.  I land at San Francisco Airport, my home airport, and I turn on my cell phone.  And I have two boys.  Kevin, Jr. and Travis, the younger one.  There’s a call from my younger one, Travis.  And I think it’s a “Hey, dad, welcome back home, stop by our house on the way up,” to see him, and the ex-wife and all that.  But it’s not.  It’s little Travis.  He goes, “Dad, you need to get here quick.  Kevin broke an iPad. He’s in the backyard, and he says he’s gonna kill himself.”  A little unusual.  A little dramatic.  So I start heading up there, and on the way I get a couple of texts from Travis, the younger one.  And one of them was like, “hey dad, get here fast, but when you do, say nice things to kevin. don’t be angry.”  And I thought it was pretty cute.  He was eleven years old at the time, just a couple of years ago.

So I get up there and get to the house.  And I go in the house, and in the family room there’s my ex-wife.  There’s my sister.  There’s Travis.  And in the backyard, in the dark, is little Kevin just pacing back and forth.  And I watch him for a little bit.  And then I go out there, and I just put my hand on his shoulder.  And I call him baby boy, which he hates.  And I go, “Hey baby boy, what’s going on?”  And he just breaks down crying.  Breaks down really, really bad.  I’ve never seen this little kid break down like this.  And I go, wow, OK.  This is something serious.  So we stay out there.  We go sit down in the backyard in the darkness, and I try to find out what’s going on with him.  And I learned, and I found out from him, a number of things.  And a lot of things I was doing wrong, and wow, OK.  I learned a lot.  But I had not discussed my divorce with him.  I was ashamed and embarrassed by it and everything else.  He thought he was the cause of it, which was 100% wrong.  But in that little eleven-year-old mind, you know, that really hit him hard.  And I didn’t think I was putting pressure on him for good grades in school.  But he said I was.  So I was.  Easy as that.  A number of things that were going on through his mind.  Some of the kids in his school started doing marijuana, and a couple had offered it to him.  He didn’t want to do it.  He knows that me being a cop and everything else, I’m pretty much against that stuff.  But he didn’t want to do it anyways.  He’s big into sports.  Big into soccer.  It’s his sport.  Traveling teams and all that.  So it was just a lot of pressure for his little head.  And, you know, he was having a very difficult time.  So yes, he had contemplated it.  We decided to see a counselor.  On the day of the appointment, I take him - just me.  And we get there, and I ask baby boy, Kevin, Jr., “Hey, do you want me in the room with you?”  I had not done anything like this before.  He goes, “Yeah, Dad.  I want you in the room.”  Alright.  But then I ask the counselor also.  I go, “Hey, do you want me in the room?”  And he goes, “Oh, yeah.  Come on in.”  And I tell him what I did, and what I do for a a living now.  In case in stems from some suicide ideation, so he knows, oh, alright, it stems from a lot of this, what your dad has done.  We go in the room, and the counselor is behind the desk.  Baby boy is in front of that, and I’m sitting off to the side, off to the left.  He starts asking all these general questions about life.  What does he dislike and like about the family members, and all these general questions.  Making sure he was at least safe, that we’re not doing anything to him.  And he’s going into everything: Yes, I’m safe, and I feel this and that.  And then he digs into him a little more, and he’s goes, “Well, if you were gone, don’t you think your parents would be sad?  And he goes, something to the effect of, “Well, maybe five to seven years.”  And I say, well wow, that’s different.  I learned later on that’s about as far as they can see in the future.  Very interesting stuff.  And then he digs into him a little more, and then the counselor goes, “Have you ever hurt yourself on purpose?”  I know exactly what he was talking about, and little-bitty boy turns up his left hand, takes his right hand, and he like sticks it with a knife, or a sharp object.   So now, what I refer to, what we would call a cutter, that non-suicidal self-injury.  I had seen this many, many times.  Many, many times on the bridge.  Folk cutting themselves prior to a suicide attempt.

And I was devastated.  And I’m not thinking he did anything wrong because he didn’t.  I’m blaming myself.  How did I miss this?  How did I let this get to this level?  This poor little kid – how did this happen?  I have to look sideways because I’m tearing up.  This is very, very tough, and I, you know, I’m ashamed of myself for this little boy.  He has done nothing wrong.  I’m feeling terrible.  And then the counselor asks him a question, and he goes, “Well, you’re not going to commit suicide, are you?”  And anybody who knows anything about mental illness and suicide knows that is a completely crappy way of asking this question.  Number one, get out from behind that desk, that barrier.  Get next to that kid, if you’re going to do that with anybody, and ask them that question.  But certainly not like that.  I was, wow, I was really taken back.  (laughs)  Are you kidding me?  You really didn’t say that.  Only because I’ve done this a lot of times, and I know this is the wrong way.  I’m like, wow.  He goes no, no, no.  And shortly thereafter, I asked the counselor if I could talk with him afterwards.  He just did not have the training in suicide assessment.  And I think a lot of people word it like that because they don’t want to hear the s-word.  What happens if they say yes?  What do you do now?  So we talked.  He didn’t have the ego.  He had a lot of training, like a lot of counselors do and such.  Very nice guy.  He actually stayed with him.  I explained my position.  What I had done.  He was apologetic and such.  He stayed with him, and little Kevin Jr. is doing much, much better now.  I learned a lot.  But I think this is what happens to a lot of first responders.  Those in the mental health field.  Any type of folks who give, give, give to society.  We fail to see what’s going on with ourselves, and a lot of times, we fail to see what’s going on with our families.  And this is what happened to me, and I  was very, very lucky this turned out on a good way, on a good path.

Jonathan Singer: That’s an amazing story.  All of it’s amazing.  Every part of it.  I really appreciate you sharing about your son because, as you said, I think one of the things that happens for first responders, mental health folks, is that we are used to being the ones who are helping.  We’re used to being the ones who say, “Oh, I see what’s going on.  I am going to do something.”  But then to be in the position of sitting in the office and saying, “Wait a minute.  I don’t know if I can help right this minute.  Maybe somebody else needs to step in.  Maybe I need to be here as a family member.”  Right?  Not the Guardian of the Golden Gate.  I think it’s a really difficult thing for folks to switch into.   

Kevin Briggs:  I think you’re absolutely right, and I would add to that, I would say: don’t be afraid to be the client.  Sometimes.  I think that’s difficult for us, especially cops sometimes.  Especially motor cops like myself.  We get these egos and all that.  Like I can handle everything.  Well, you can’t.  I can tell you.  Don’t be afraid to be the client.  You know, you’ll live longer. 

Jonathan Singer: Kevin, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today on The Social Work Podcast.  I really appreciate it.  

Kevin Briggs:  It’s been absolutely my pleasure.  Thank you for having me.   


Grateful shout out to John West who donated this transcript. 

Meeting Kevin Briggs for the first time
at the 2015 American Association of Suicidology
Conference in Chicago

References and Resources

Pivital Points

APA (6th ed) citation for this podcast:

Singer, J. B. (Producer). (2016, June 12). #104 - Guardian of the Golden Gate: Interview with Kevin Briggs [Audio Podcast]. Social Work Podcast. Retrieved from

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Hi there. The download link to the Kevin Biggs podcast seems to be broken. I keep getting a 404 error. Will keep checking back to see when it is fixed. I am looking forward to listening to this podcast.