About 1,500 students filled the Helena High School gym bleachers to hear Kevin Hines tell of his suicide attempt and how it changed his life.
Hines jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge in September 2000.
Of the more than 2,000 people who’ve done so, only 36 have survived.
He is one of just five survivors who regained full physical mobility, he said. He now recognizes his life as a great gift.
Since that fateful day, he’s become a suicide prevention advocate, speaking across the country and internationally.
He asked the HHS students for a moment of silence Friday morning to remember seven of their peers who died by suicide in the past five years.
Words make a difference, he told the students.
If someone on that day in 2000 had asked him, “Are you OK? Can I help you? Is something wrong?” he probably would not have jumped, he said.
“I believed I had only one option,” he said, which was to die by his own hands.
He had been battling his bipolar disorder for two years and was ready to end the mental anguish, he said.
When he was first hit with the symptoms at age 17, they were dramatic and frightening.
He became convinced postal workers in their white mail trucks were trying to kill him, as were people in the audience at his high school play.
Unlike physical problems, which people easily recognize, mental problems get a different response.
“What is wrong with you?” they ask, but with a note of sarcasm rather than sympathy. “Snap out of it. Get over it. Move on.”
“People want to blame you for it, but I’m here to tell you, there is no blame,” he said.
If you are suffering mentally, he said, “never again silence your pain. Always be honest about what you’re dealing with.”
When he was a teen, he didn’t know how to talk about his hallucinations, paranoia and depression.
Not only do people want physical pain to stop, they want mental pain to stop too, “and that’s what leads to death by suicide.”
“I know suicide ain’t the answer,” he said, it leaves all sorts of pain and destruction in its wake.
“Your words have the power to do one of two things,” he said. “They have the power to help and heal or damage and destroy.
“I’m asking you to think about the words you use,” he told the crowd, and how they can hurt people. “Why do you get excited about hurting somebody else’s feelings?”
He recalls the self-loathing and depression he felt whenever he looked into the mirror back then.
And he recounted sitting on the bus on his way to the bridge weeping uncontrollably and talking to imaginary voices.
Although 100 people on the bus were staring at him, not one person asked if he was OK.
“I wholeheartedly believe ... we are here to be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers,” he said. “We are here to give back to those around us and make sure they are OK.”
If they’re not, “we’re here to suggest they go see a counselor, or teacher ... and get the help they need.
“One person makes a difference,” he said. “Each and every one in this gym can change a life with one small gesture.”
He urged the students to stand and yell at the top of their voices a message for those in the room battling mental pain: “Be here tomorrow” -- which they did with enthusiasm.
After he jumped, Hines knew in the millisecond that followed he’d made the greatest mistake of his life.
When he landed in the water, he felt something large and slimy beneath him, buoying him up in the water, he said.
He thought it was a shark.
It was only much later he learned that it was a sea lion that kept him afloat until the Coast Guard boat arrived.
His injuries almost severed his spinal column, but miraculously he survived.
And he has been grateful ever since and works tirelessly on suicide prevention. He also takes care of his own physical and mental health and notes that it's a constant fight to be well. He recognizes that his thoughts do not have to become his actions.
Hines also told the students of his hilarious and disastrous first date with a beautiful woman who would become his wife, and that he’s been happily married now for 10 years.
This is just one of many things he didn’t know would happen in his future when he jumped from the bridge.
“You are going to get past today,” he said. “Just because you are in pain -- recognize today is not tomorrow. Thoughts of suicide never ever have to become actions."
Hines’ speech brought the students to their feet for a standing ovation.
“I think it’s a really great message we needed to hear -- with all the people we lost at Helena High throughout the years," said senior Taylor Terrio. "It seems that’s how people react to the bad parts of their lives.
“There have been a lot of judgmental people that say they want to help, but don’t," she added. "And people don’t know who to reach out to.”
“I thought it was an amazing story,” said Brandt Netschert, another senior. “I think the students in Helena really need to hear it. It gets the message across that people really need to talk to each other. One of the things is that no one wants to talk because people will think there’s something wrong with them.”
“I think he was really good,” said Aine Lawlor. “It was a very strong message we as a school definitely need to hear. Even if we already know it, it’s something we need to hear. I hope that it means something to the students, it certainly did for me.”