Two groups are bridging the gap between the New Paltz community and SUNY New Paltz campus by initiating the conversation about mental health and suicide awareness. 

On Tuesday, April 4, the Maya Gold Foundation — founded in memory of 15-year-old New Paltz resident Maya Gold — and the New Paltz Association for Suicide Awareness/Prevention (ASAP) — founded in memory of 19-year-old SUNY New Paltz student Tom O’Rourke — presented Kevin Briggs, a retired sergeant for the California Highway Patrol. Briggs gave a lecture entitled “Hope on the Golden Gate Bridge” in Lecture Center 100 at 7 p.m. He has given TED talks on the subject of suicide awareness and mental health. Briggs also wrote a book about his experiences: “Guardian of the Golden Gate: Protecting the Line Between Hope and Despair.”

Preceding the lecture was a daytime program for local law enforcement and first responders that was held in Student Union Building (SUB) 100 at 3 p.m.

Briggs, who spent 23 years on the California Highway Patrol, is well-regarded for saving upwards of 200 people from jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge — though he said that those he’s helped have saved themselves.

“I’m just there as a conduit on a very dark day,” he said.

Briggs informed the audience that in 2015, more people died from suicide than from traffic accidents or homicides, reaching a total of 44,193 people.

Briggs brought the audience through the causes of mental illness, including personal nutrition, environmental factors, substance abuse, traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and genetics. He also informed the audience of the signs to look for if someone may be in distress, such as changes in behavior or appearance, unusual sleeping patterns and feelings of hopelessness or being a burden.

He underscored the importance of dispelling common myths about suicide, such as it occurring without warning, that it shouldn’t be talked about for fear of planting the idea and the thought that suicide rates increase during the holidays, as they actually increase during springtime.

The zenith of Briggs’ talk was “the conversation” and how to approach it. He described the different listening modes, saying that those talking with those struggling need to remain active listeners. He also reminded the audience that it is not an interrogation, and it is important to normalize feelings.

“If you have no one to talk to it can get lonely out there,” Briggs said. “Just to be in [the corner of someone in need] is huge.”

Making his presentation more personal, he told the audience about his family’s history with mental illness as well as his own. Briggs, after having dealt with testicular cancer, the death of his mother, an on-duty motor collision, heart surgery and eventual divorce, was diagnosed with depression and put on medication. Having worked in law enforcement for years, Briggs seldom felt that he could show any weakness, and suddenly his depression fell into that category. In this, he highlighted the importance of self-care.

“You do things to get better,” he said. “I didn’t want this, but I needed it to help me.”

ASAP treasurer and third-year mechanical engineering major Greg Schotte reflected on Briggs’ lecture in relation to the tragic loss of his friend and former suitemate Tom O’Rourke last spring.

“You’re with your friends 24/7 — you live, sleep and eat with them,” Schotte said. “If anyone is going to notice something off about one of your friends, it’s going to be you. But once you notice something is off, what do you do about it? The point of bringing Kevin here is to get people to know what to do.”

Mathew Swerdloff, father of Maya Gold and president of the Maya Gold Foundation, agreed with Schotte, emphasizing the significance of Briggs’ message and having a support system.

“I hope the takeaway people have is that they should be attentive to, listen to and connect with each other,” he said. “The more we know [about this subject], the better educated and prepared we are to deal with it and support each other.”

ASAP’s next event will be their Out of the Darkness walk sponsored by the local chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) on April 23, starting on the SUB concourse. Registration is available online through the AFSP website.

This story first appeared in The New Paltz Oracle on April 6, 2017.

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