The ticking time bomb in men’s mental health
I was standing on the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco. It was dusk, and I couldn’t quite believe I was actually here making a film about a remarkable man on a subject like men’s mental health that was uncomfortably close to home. For those unaware, the Golden Gate Bridge and being a tourist hot spot is the USA’s most popular location for taking one’s own life. The immense height of the bridge means that only about 1% of those who leap survive.
The film I was about to make culminated in weeks of hard work and meticulous planning. It formed one of the final tasks of Muse Film School 2017, a learning project I had been involved with for over 6 months. As a team of six, we were each tasked to find a remarkable person within the San Francisco area.
Judgement day finally arrived as team San Francisco was to vote on the most powerful story that would ultimately form the plot for our film. It was a little after midnight when I jumped onto the zoom call. I was incredibly nervous about the potential outcome of the team’s decision as I had a hunch about which way the vote would go. It wasn’t long before I faintly heard Patrick (MUSE creator) say, “Ok, Briggs gets it!” I was proven correct. A large knot built up in my stomach, and for the first time during Muse Film School, I doubted myself; I questioned whether I could continue being involved in this project!
The character at the heart of our story had been chosen. Kevin Briggs was our man, a former Californian Highway Patrol Officer. During his service, he was responsible for helping over 200 troubled souls from jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge to their death. Now retired, Kevin started Pivotal Points, an organisation set on helping those with mental health and crisis issues. The content of our chosen story was a little too close to home.
For several years I have suffered from complex mental health issues. Medicated and with a lot of love and support from my family, I can live a reasonably everyday life, whatever normal is.
In 2012 my mental state hit a crisis point, and at the time, I felt that I had no other choice than to take my own life. Thankfully my attempt was interrupted. The delivery driver who knocked on my studio door will never know how grateful I now am for his timing that day, as without that portrait delivery, I simply wouldn’t be here now.
I remember the day I was due to fly to SF like it was this morning. I’ve never been keen on goodbyes, so saying goodbye to Katie, my wife, and my two boys, Ollie & Fred, was challenging. Mentally I was not in a good place, and I really wasn’t relishing the thought of putting myself through this painful process.
I manage my mental health on a day to day basis in simple small steps. This was the process I adopted that morning, pack my bag, load the car, say goodbye, reach the airport, park the car, get checked in and so on… I have this deal with myself that if I feel uneasy, I have the freedom to bale out at any stage. Even after arriving at SF international airport, I needed to go to the Virgin desk to ask about flights back to the UK over the next few days. This strategy calmed me somewhat, and it’s one I have adopted many times.
Meeting up with the team, we headed up to Sonoma, California, to find our air B&B settled me a little and to be honest, the working schedule over the next few days was so manic that I felt pretty strong and not at all vulnerable. Unbeknown to me, though, the following day was monumental and undoubtedly going to significantly impact my life. As we were a new team, we decided we would do a couple of team interviews to get us all galvanised and well drilled. Jay, our director, would be the interviewer, and two crew members were selected to be interviewed. At this point, everything changed for me as Wendi, our editor, had been chosen to be interviewed.
A tremendous amount of pre-production has to occur to tell the best possible story, whether part of film production or a book. It really is the pillar of every story’s success. Muse film school wanted us to experience this pre-production process, so as a group, we were encouraged to interview each other and really dig deep into our personalities and life experiences.
This process made me feel incredibly uncomfortable, and I was initially reluctant to allow anyone to delve within me. As a former Royal Marine, I’d been programmed a certain way, or so I thought….
Wendi was the first to be interviewed; she was naturally very nervous as she sat in the hot seat and told her story about her depression and suicidal thoughts struggles. Next up was me, and that classic feeling of fight or flight was kicking in; at that point, the flight was definitely the strongest emotion. Suddenly I felt incredibly insecure; I wanted to be at home where I felt safe.
After only being described as an internal storm, I pulled myself together. To hell with it, I thought! It was time to stop running away and stand and fight, take on this illness and not allow it to define who I was and what I wanted to be. It was time to open up, tell my story and perhaps tame one or two of my demons.
Walking toward the interview chair felt like how I would imagine a prisoner on death row felt. Sitting in the chair, I noticed how warm it was under the lights and how much the chair squeaked when I moved (I made a mental note to myself to change the chair before Kevin’s interview). Two cameras were set to my left, and Jay, our director who would interview me, was slightly hidden to my right next to the set key light. The crew were all in place and incredibly silent; this added to my inner tension. I was about to bare my soul; no turning back now, no running!
The interview literally went in a flash. Being asked searching questions allowed me to properly open up for the first time in my life. Jay delved deep, and I responded. After the interview, the team congratulated me wholeheartedly, and you know what, it felt amazing. A huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I’d heard it said a million times before that the secret to helping depression and anxiety was to talk. Surely not; how could the simple act of talking free me from these spiralling thoughts? Well, I had just experienced the benefits of talking, letting go and sharing. I have since learnt that doing this once is relatively easy; opening up regularly is a whole new ball game and one I’m still learning.Us men are deeply programmed, and for me, it is definitely a work in progress.
The filming of Kevin’s story progressed over the next 3 days, and it was a wonderful experience of how to fuse storytelling and filmmaking together. The film was premiered in Portland in March 2018, along with four other films made by members of film school 2017. I even managed to take the stage at the premiere and shared my story about why I didn’t want to make this film.
Telling meaningful stories is something that I want to explore further. I’ve had a remarkable career as a wedding photographer, shooting in some of the world’s most incredible locations, and now is a new chapter in my life. I will always be grateful to the Muse team for the wealth of storytelling knowledge I currently have. The film of my story below is, if nothing else, raw and honest. If it can encourage one person to talk and not get themselves into such a dark place, it’s all been worth it.
The film below is the creation born from my interview that day in San Francisco. To watch the movie about Kevin Briggs, The Guardian of the Golden Gate, click here