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Luis Fábregas

Fábregas: Bridge jumper to share his healing at mental illness conference

Luis Fábregas
| Saturday, March 29, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

Kevin Hines attempted suicide by jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. At 19, he convinced himself that everyone hated him and wanted him dead. He felt useless and weak.

Hines survived the jump in 2000, one of only a few dozen people to do so. Authorities estimate more than 1,300 people jumped to their deaths since the bridge opened in 1937.

What's remarkable about Hines' story is not just his survival of a potentially gruesome death but his transformation into a determined advocate for people living with a mental health disorder.

“When I jumped, it was the worst day of my life. But because I survived, I was able to change my outlook and find hope and healing,” he told me.

Hines, 32, who lives in San Francisco with his wife and dog, will be in Pittsburgh on April 12 to speak at the annual conference of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Southwestern Pennsylvania, or NAMI. He will give the keynote address at 1 p.m. in the Pittsburgh Airport Marriott.

The folks at NAMI are targeting people in their 20s, the so-called millennials, because they have the highest rate of mental illness among any age group. It's a wise move, considering mental illnesses have risen over the past few years. Young people often feel invincible and fail to recognize symptoms, or simply ignore them.

Hines said he was 17 when doctors diagnosed him with bipolar disorder, which causes extreme emotional highs and lows. Since then, he has experienced hallucinations, depression and paranoia.

Early on, he became so delusional that he thought he could be elected president of the United States. Wearing one of his father's suits, he grabbed a clipboard and walked around his neighborhood to campaign.

“I knocked on every door, believing that I could get enough votes to become president,” he said.

His condition prompted him to spend an inordinate amount of money on clothes and gifts for friends. He went on drinking binges, all the while hiding his troubles because he believed no one cared. When he was on the bridge on that dark day in the fall of 2000, he said no one offered help. That's all he wanted.

And that's perhaps the most eye-opening aspect of this story — not that he jumped; not that he shattered his vertebrae and required painful back surgery; not that he knew he made a mistake the minute he jumped.

What's telling here is that he felt helpless and alone, yet no one reached out. He yearned for a support system.

Hines is well and feels in control of his life. But he acknowledged he could get sick again and wind up hospitalized.

“There are relapses with mental health recovery. It's chronic. It's with you forever. You really have to fight hard to stay mentally stable every single day,” he said.

Everyone should have the chance to listen to Hines. His words should make us realize that mental illness is not something you can address by “sucking it up” or “being tough.”

He encourages young people facing a mental illness to “talk about it” and to tell someone when they think they need help.

“I want to inspire people to change their lives, to get them to find hope and the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.

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