Editor’s note: This article contains mentions of suicide or suicidal ideation. Please take care while reading, and note the helpful resources at the end of the story.
On Sept. 25, 2000, a Monday, 19-year-old Kevin Hines asked his dad to drop him off at City College on Ocean Avenue in San Francisco. He hugged his dad goodbye, which he rarely did, because he believed it was the last time he would see him.
After years of psychiatric help and numerous medications, Hines was still grappling with severe mood swings, paranoia and depressive episodes. His girlfriend had broken up with him three days before, and his beloved drama teacher had committed suicide earlier that year. Hines spent the weekend dealing with hallucinations and voices in his head telling him to kill himself, so he decided he was going to do it.
He ate Starbursts and Skittles for his last meal and took the bus to the Golden Gate Bridge. He said he sobbed crossing the parking lot toward a section of the bridge that he’d selected, hoping he would avoid hitting a pillar on the way down. A German tourist asked him to take a photo of her, and he did. And then he jumped.
In 2005, Hines told SFGate that the second he went over the guardrail he changed his mind.
“Oh, shit,” he said he thought at that moment. “I don’t want to die!”
It’s estimated that only 35 people have ever survived jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge, Hines being one of them. The distance to the water is 220 feet — around 25 stories — and he fell headfirst at an estimated speed of 75 miles per hour and hit the water four seconds after jumping.
“The impact reverberated through my legs and shattered my T12, L1 and L2,” Hines told YouTuber Mark Dohner in a recent conversation. The T12, L1 and L2 are sections of vertebrae. “I temporarily lost use of my legs, I went 70 feet below the water’s surface, and I opened my eyes and all I wanted to do was live.”
Without using his legs, Hines swam up to the surface. His boots were waterlogged and he struggled to stay afloat when he noticed something circling beneath him.
“I thought, ‘You gotta be kidding me. I didn’t die off the Golden Gate Bridge, and a shark is going to eat me,'” he said. “But it wasn’t a shark.”
Hines said he found out years later that it was a sea lion. He explained he was lying on his back on the surface of the water and was able to stay buoyant because of the sea lion circling below him and bumping him up. The Coast Guard was able to save him and brought him to a hospital, but fixing the physical injuries wouldn’t be enough. He would spend the following months in the psychiatric ward at St. Francis Hospital in San Francisco and would be hospitalized again over the next few years due to PTSD.
Hines has spent the last 20 years working as a national motivational speaker and an advocate for suicide prevention. In 2016 he was awarded the highest honor by the nonprofit Mental Health America, the Clifford W. Beers Award, for his work trying to improve the lives of people with mental illness, as well as spreading awareness about the stigmas they deal with.
“It wasn’t so much that I wanted to die,” Hines told Dohner. “I believed I had to. What do you do when that happens?”
Around the anniversary of his jump, which coincides with Suicide Prevention Month, clips of Hines retelling his story go viral every year. A Google search will pull up hundreds of interviews and articles about him dating back to the early 2000s — an ABC News story in 2006, a Reddit thread from 2013, a BuzzFeed article in 2015 and a 2019 piece in the Sacramento Bee, to name a few.
It’s a rare viral story, too, that even viewers who have seen it before or heard Hines speak still feel compelled to watch or read it every time it comes across their social media.
“I’ve known his story for decades,” one viewer commented under Dohner’s TikTok clip of the interview with Hines. “But I never once knew about the sea lion.”
“This man literally changed my life,” another person wrote. “I struggled a lot around the ages of 17-18, but the words ‘I don’t want to die today’ I’ll never forget. thank you.”
Why does Hines’s story resonate with audiences?
Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. It’s estimated that at least 30 people a year jump off the Golden Gate Bridge. Hines’s mental illness issues are not unique in the U.S., but his survival is arguably nothing short of a miracle.
He has insight into what could have been the final moments of his life, something everyone will experience themselves or has experienced through losing others, which could be why his story has been able to captivate audiences for 23 years.
Erica Goldblatt Hyatt, an assistant professor and psychology chair at Bryn Athyn College, wrote in 2018 that part of the reason why Hines’s story resonates with so many people is his “refreshing honesty, realism, advocacy and appreciation of the complex conditions that contribute to mental illness.”
“Hines, in sharing his story, is fostering a critical bridge of hope between life and death for people caught in the pain of living with serious mental illness, difficult life circumstances, and more,” Hyatt wrote. “Kevin has become the bridge between the many mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, children, spouses, friends, and loved ones who made similar acts.”
Jay Ruderman, who hosts the podcast All About Change, argued that Hines’s story resonates so much because he was an “everyman.” The fact that he was part of a loving family living in a nice area and was enrolled in school — it all went against preconceived notions about what type of person would consider committing suicide or grappled with mental illness.
In an interview with Hines in an October 2022 episode, Ruderman also credited Hines with helping shape the language surrounding conversations about suicide and suggested that the retelling of his story served a greater purpose by going viral every year.
“I grew up with the term of ‘someone committed suicide,’ but I think it’s accepted now to say ‘someone died by suicide,'” Ruderman told Hines. “Suicide is not something that you’re intentionally making a decision to do. It is sort of controlling you.”
“Language does matter,” Hines agreed. “We say ‘died by suicide’ now because it’s a way to respect the person that passed and the people that have thought of attempting, and let them know that they’re not alone, that their survivorship matters and that they matter.”
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. You can also connect with a Crisis Text Line counselor at no charge by texting the word “HOME” to 741741. Visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to learn more about the warning signs of suicidal ideation and check out the Jed Foundation’s online Mental Health Resource Center.
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