Mental wellness, suicide prevention at center of Steamboat conference

Suicide survivor Kevin Hines speaks during the Yampa Valley Wellness Conference on Saturday at Sheraton Steamboat Resort.

— Kevin Hines said he wasn’t the only one who made a desperate internal pact while hurtling down the dark road toward suicide. While sitting on the San Francisco city bus bawling, 19 and alone, Hines promised himself that he’d tell the whole story to the first person who asked him whether he was all right.

No one asked. They stared, not knowing what to do or what to say.

His own family, who loved him dearly and knew about his troubles, had helped him in every way they could and didn’t know what to do, either.

Just before he jumped over the railing of the Golden Gate Bridge, a leap that he would be one of 33 people ever to survive, he was pleading internally for help from strangers who barely took notice of him. His suffering was invisible as years of psychosis, paranoia, hallucinations, mania and depression drove him over the edge.

“Would anybody have listened?” he asked a crowd of about 200 people early Saturday during his keynote address at Sheraton Steamboat Resort. “Would you have listened? I think you guys would.”

Ronna Autrey, executive director of the local nonprofit Reaching Everyone Preventing Suicide, first saw Hines speak at an event several years ago and brought him to Steamboat Springs for the second annual Yampa Valley Wellness Conference.

“I think he truly explained where somebody’s mind is,” said Autrey, whose organization aims to educate the community about recognizing the signs of suicide through QPR (question, persuade, refer) training as well as offering resources for those contemplating suicide. “And the message is people don’t have to be alone.”

Hines, who still battles bipolar disorder with psychotic features, uses medication, therapy and education about his disease along with his passion of sharing his story to work every day toward mental well-being.

“There should be no blame game in suicide,” Hines said after he told the story with a hint of heartfelt humor about how he was battered by but saved from the San Francisco Bay.

“They believe that they have to die. I don’t believe they have to," he said. "As humans, we all want to survive.”

The conference began with coffee and breakfast in the Sheraton ballroom, where more than 200 people had registered for the event, up from 150 in the conference’s first year.

It appeared to be a high-level professional conference with free notepads and lunch, glossy programs and expert speakers. But the event was free to attend for anyone, including mental health professionals, nonprofit volunteers and members of the public interested in learning more about mental wellness in the Yampa Valley community.

“The message is just a safer, healthier community,” Autrey said about the goal of the event. “We need people to get educated that you can get help.”

The event was sponsored by REPS, Colorado West Regional Mental Health and the Yampa Valley Medical Center, and it featured materials emblazoned with the phrase “Live + Help Live.”

Although suicide was a centerpiece discussion, the worst possible outcome of mental illness is not the only one.

Breakout sessions throughout the day touched on subjects from eating disorders and aging to youth resilience, anxiety and a QPR training session.

Additional keynote speaker University of Utah psychiatry professor Perry Renshaw discussed the latest research in the locally pertinent realm of the correlation between high altitude and depression, and Harry Haroutunian spoke about prescription medication abuse.

It’s the latter issue that concerns Kate Elkins, Routt County director of Grand Futures Prevention Coalition, who attended the conference representing the nonprofit that aims to raise awareness about drug and alcohol abuse, which she said can exacerbate and trigger mental health issues.

On a personal level, Hines’ story touched her.

“The thing I got out of it, in my personal relationships, was to always ask if something’s wrong,” Elkins said. “Don’t be afraid, if you see someone crying, to ask if someone’s OK. It was powerful.”

So were Hines' final words, when he said to an audience that was tearing up with emotion that he was not only grateful to be alive but never would take anything — from the Sheraton's podium to the strangers in the room with him — for granted again.

“My message to you is this: No matter what you go through in life, there is always hope; there is always a future; there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel.”

To reach Nicole Inglis, call 970-871-4204 or email ninglis@ExploreSteamboat.com

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