Health Team

Dr. Gupta: If you see someone struggling with mental illness, don't turn away

Posted May 18, 2019 8:06 a.m. EDT

— On the morning of September 25, 2000, when Kevin Hines looked out from the Golden Gate Bridge, it must have been a magnificent sight. The sun bouncing off the coastline of Marin County to the left and backlighting the coast of San Francisco to the right, with Alcatraz straight ahead. There were probably boats of different types and sizes in the glittering water and an occasional sea lion breaking the surface.

The Golden Gate Bridge is one of the world's most exquisite, an American landmark. Despite that -- or perhaps because of it -- it has also been one of the most infamous places in the world for people to die by suicide. It was on this stunning bridge on that perfect day that 19-year-old Kevin decided to jump.

I am told the 220-foot fall takes only a few seconds but probably feels a lot longer. By the time you hit the water, having accelerated to about 80 miles per hour, the surface of the water functions more like concrete, and does similar damage to the body. Spinal vertebrae and the thoracic rib cage snap like twigs and then rip through the organs in the abdomen and chest. Arteries and veins tear open, and every body cavity fills with blood. The pain is searing, and as you plunge into the frigid water, you are likely to drown, if you are even still alive.

As soon as Kevin's hands left the 4-foot-high railing of the Golden Gate Bridge, he felt "instantaneous regret." He tried to maneuver his body so that he could land feet-first, knowing that would be his only chance of survival. Somehow, miraculously even, it worked.

When I met Kevin a few years after his jump, I was there to report one of my first stories for CNN. The headline was simple: Man jumps from Golden Gate Bridge and survives. As I soon learned in my career as a journalist, though, the real stories -- the ones that leave a mark -- are usually more nuanced and take time to draw out. They require lots of patience, little talking, mostly listening.

I could see the jagged edges that still filled Kevin's mind just like the titanium cages filled his spine. Within minutes, I knew that Kevin's deeper untold story wasn't just about survival, it was about empathy, concern and our basic human obligations to one another.

That responsibility is central to Kevin's decision to take his life that day. He walked from his home to the bus stop, rode to the Golden Gate Bridge and then walked to the middle of it. What no one knew was that he had made a silent pact with himself: If anyone offered him a kind word or "friendly eyes" as he made his way to the bridge, he wouldn't jump. He just wanted to see one act of compassion in a city full of people to convince this obviously troubled 19-year-old kid that he should live. But on that day, no one rose to the occasion.

That part of the story still tears at him and at times cripples him. When Kevin quietly, nearly whispering, told me these details while we stood on the bridge in 2003, I felt a pit in my stomach and stinging in the back of my eyes. Not one person. I wished I had known Kevin back then.

When Kevin and I again walked onto the Golden Gate Bridge last month, 16 years after we met, I saw a completely different person. When I took him to the place where he jumped and asked him about it, he paused and said, "This is the place where I lived." I loved that. And over the past 16 years, Kevin has brought that rebirthed life to the very issue that almost stole it. Traveling all over the world, Kevin has been on a mission to eradicate suicide, which has increased 33% in the United States over the past 20 years.

Through his public speaking, storytelling and films, Kevin is now regularly showing the compassion, kind words and "friendly eyes" that no one had given him when he needed it the most. He won't concede this point, but Kevin has probably saved hundreds of lives along the way. And he changed me as well.

A few years ago, I launched the Just Say Hello campaign with Oprah Winfrey.

The fact is, if you see someone drop from cardiac arrest, you probably have some idea of what to do: call 911, start chest compressions. If we see someone who is clearly in the throes of a mental health crisis, however, too often our reaction is to do nothing, and maybe even turn away.

Let's change that. Together. All of us. A kind word, friendly eyes. Just say "hello." You might even save a life, someone like Kevin Hines.