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COMMENTARY

Sean Kirst: From the depths of despair, suicide survivor brings message of hope

Sean Kirst

Kevin Hines arrives in Hamburg on Thursday, bearing precious witness. He offers the rarest of all perspectives in a nation where the suicide rate climbed by 33 percent between 1999 and 2017, where information released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates suicide is the second-leading cause of death for Americans between 10 and 34.

Hines made the choice to take his own life. In 2000, at 19, he rode a bus to San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, a place where at least 1,500 are believed to have died by suicide over the last 82 years. Hines, weeping and distraught, climbed over the railing at a point about 220 feet above the water.

It took him about 4 seconds to reach bottom. The cold air, the fast descent, blew everything out of his mind but one clear thought: He wanted to live.

The odds, by astronomical measure, were against that, as he will tell his audience at 7 p.m. Thursday in the Hamburg High School auditorium. A tiny percentage of those who have jumped from such a height on the bridge are believed to have survived.

Hines did. The doctors told him he hit the water in exactly the right fashion to avoid being killed, and a woman driving past happened to see him on the bridge and had access to a phone at the moment when it mattered. The Coast Guard, alerted by the call, arrived before Hines, stunned and injured in the fall, could sink into the depths.

Almost 19 years later, in a nation where suicidal behavior is an escalating mental health crisis, he sees that survival as a responsibility. Doctors told Hines he has bipolar disorder, and he believes most people who take their own lives go through much of the same process he experienced.

In the end they would have reversed that choice, if they had the power.

Kevin Hines, at work for his foundation. (Submitted image)

“I get to be here,” Hines said, which he sees as an obligation to comfort others who might be quietly approaching the same threshold.

He met his wife, Margaret, in 2004, when he was a patient in a psychiatric hospital and she was visiting a relative there. Together, they co-founded the Kevin & Margaret Hines Foundation, with an emphasis on mental health awareness and reaching out to those contemplating suicide.

The idea, Hines said, is “light at the end of the tunnel,” the reality that simply making it five minutes — or a day, or a year — beyond the moment of worst despair can help lead you back to what he achieved, to a joy in being here.

That truth, Hines said, is often threatened and obscured by the overwhelming sweep of the digital age. Bullied and sometimes beaten by older children as a youth, he said he cannot imagine what it would be like today as a lonely or vulnerable child, lost amid the hurricane of taunting, contempt and assaults on self-esteem that are a daily part of getting lost in the Internet.

“Certainly, this is a society that values social media over real connections,” said Hines, who laments the lack of "real conversations at the dinner table or at the breakfast table. We have to turn the tide about these devices that leave us wanting so badly for something that isn’t real.”

He speaks of his own recovery from symptoms of mental illness. He does not drink. He dedicates himself to taking appropriate medications, to exercise, to getting enough rest.

A few months ago, he said, when he found himself struggling for emotional well-being, he made the decision to remove Facebook, Twitter and Instagram from his phone.

“I wanted to be more present for the people who love me,” Hines said.

His appearance in Hamburg is part of a new initiative within the Hamburg Central School District, according to Superintendent Michael Cornell. Two years ago, the district received a $75,000 Tower Foundation grant to train all 650 staff members in what amounts to “youth mental health first aid,” the mission of providing comfort and knowledge-based intervention when a child offers signals of emotional distress.

Cornell said many instances of addiction, self-harm, bullying or acts of school violence can be traced to children wounded by trauma, depression or other incarnations of mental illness.

Not long ago, he said, a Hamburg bus driver who also received the training knew how to intervene when a small child began unexpectedly weeping on the bus.

Kevin Hines, at the Golden Gate Bridge. (Submitted image)

Untreated struggles with mental health, Cornell said, can set children up for endless troubles throughout life. “The question is,” he said, “what can we do to leverage the great and caring people in our district to do something about it?”

The visit by Hines is part of the response. He will speak with middle school and high school students before offering the community forum in the high school, an event that is free and open to the public, unless the crowd reaches the capacity of just beyond 900.

Hines had only one request about the writing of this piece. His foundation works with Crisis Text Line Services, and he said anyone nearing a moment of danger or self-harm can text CNQR at 741741 or call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 to receive 24-hour counseling and help.

Sometimes, Hines said, that is all it takes. He often speaks of how he gave away many of his possessions in the days leading up to his decision to leap, how he was weeping openly on the bus ride to the bridge, and how no one simply said to him:

Are you all right? Can we help?

Hines believes now that might have been enough to bring him back, that what he needed beyond all else was for someone to recognize his pain. Instead, he went to the bridge and threw himself off, and in a wisp of time that amounted to maybe four heartbeats before he smashed into the water, he knew what he would do with a second chance to live.

He would be a witness, a representative, for all those who did not.

To keep those ranks from growing larger, he brings that testament to us.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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