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First responder and suicide survivor share stage to spread awareness

By Doug Rodoski

Contributing Writer

What goes through a man’s mind in the moments leading up to an attempt to take his own life? On Sept. 30, a large crowd at UNH listened intently to the first person account from suicide survivor Kevin Berthia. Berthia was accompanied by first responder Sergeant Kevin Briggs (California Highway Patrol, retired).

“I would always try to keep the conversation going,” explained Briggs, as he spoke of the tactics he employed on that harrowing day on March 11, 2005.  “You do not want to be talking down to them; the key is to empower the distressed person.”

Briggs outlined how anyone is susceptible to stress and potential depression. While serving in the U.S. Army, he was diagnosed with cancer and endured chemotherapy. He was 26 when his mother passed away 1989. With the CHP, he had a devastating head-on collision with another motorcyclist. He encountered heart issues at 45, and went through a divorce a year later. Shortly after his grandfather passed away, he was diagnosed with depression.

Briggs spoke of how there is a stigma attached to admitting depression, amongst law enforcement personnel and other similar career fields.

“Three things that resonate are denial, shame and avoidance,” he explained.

Briggs then mentioned the big three for suicide warning signs: suicide threats, previous attempts, and feelings of being a burden. Other indicators include changes in behavior, appearance and sleep patterns; drug and alcohol abuse; emotional withdrawal and feelings of hopelessness.

“High emotions equal low rational thought,” he added. “When dealing with a potential suicide, you want to stretch time out and keep the person engaged.”

He then introduced the man he helped in 2005, Kevin Berthia.

“Living in Oakland (California), face and image were important. So it came as a surprise when at 19, I was diagnosed with a congenital mental disorder,” Berthia said.

“I was also blaming myself for the separation of my parents when I was 13,” he said. “Then at 21, I decided to become a father. I thought that would give my life meaning.”

Unfortunately, a series of personal and family crises soon followed, in rapid succession.

“My daughter was born prematurely; when I finally brought her home I was confronted with a $225,000 debt for hospital care which was not being covered by insurance. How was I going to pay this back?”

Unemployment compounded the problem.

“I always felt that no matter what, there was hope for tomorrow. Then on the morning of March 11, 2005, I woke up at 4:28 a.m. and had a new feeling. I could not see any hope for another day.”

The audience intently listened to the events of that day, from his buying gas for his car with loose change, to asking a stranger for directions to the Golden Gate Bridge.

“I was asking myself: ‘Who is going to miss me?’”

As Berthia spoke there was the photograph of him on the screen. He was balanced on the outside rail of the bridge, head down with his hands in his pockets. Above him, on street level, was Sergeant Briggs.

“I did not know it was Briggs at the time. We had a 92-minute conversation, and I spoke for 89 of the minutes. I just told him everything, and I did not know who he was or what his ethnicity.”

Finally he climbed back over, and was taken to the hospital in a police car. He detailed how “out of it” he was for the four days after the attempt. Disturbingly, things became more difficult when he returned home.

“The next day this picture was in the “San Francisco Chronicle.” Now there was nowhere to hide.” Berthia went on to challenge the audience.

“If there was a picture of the worst day of your life, what would it look like?”

Then on May 7, 2013, Berthia was contacted by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. The organization wanted him to fly to New York City, and share his experience.

“Others with similar experiences were stepping forward, as well as victim’s families,” Berthia said.

Berthia emphasized how “…we are all first responders. All you need is two ears and a heart. There is power in listening, and everything in life prepares you for your moment.”

After the presentation, several UNH students remarked about how the subject resonated with them.

“The talk was honest and straightforward,” said Sarah Milicia, a senior in UNH’s English program.  “The speakers addressed the stigma attached to depression, and personalized it with their experiences. They emphasized how it was okay to ask for help.”

“My take-away point from the talk was: how important it is to listen to people,” added senior Victoria Burack. “The message applies to all students here.”

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