Lecturing college students on the delicate and somber topic of suicide prevention may seem to be an unconventional job for a tough-talking former police officer. But then, Karl (Bear) Harris is an unconventional man.
"Most people usually pussyfoot their way around such issues as suicide . . . but Harris won't," said Beth Davidson, a senior at Pomona College who attended a recent lecture by Harris at the Claremont Colleges. "He is brutally honest. He speaks from the heart."
The reputation of the broad-shouldered, 6-foot-1 psychologist from Van Nuys has spread among high schools, colleges and church organizations. He has become a regular speaker at several campuses, including the Claremont Colleges, Loyola Marymount University and UCLA, where he teaches student leaders and dormitory advisers how to recognize suicidal tendencies and head off suicides.
Harris, 55, works part time for the Los Angeles County coroner's office, where he studies the psychological aspects of suspected suicide cases.
Although Harris varies his talk to fit different groups, the preface is always the same: "My name is Bear," he says with a slight country accent. "For those of you who need to be formal, you can call me Karl. I will not respond to Dr. Harris. As we go along, if you want to jump in, just holler, 'Hey, Bear!' "
At a recent talk with Cal Poly Pomona students, Harris was direct, honest and often humorous. Most of the students said they found his style a refreshing change from the usual clinical approach to suicide.
"How many of you have ever thought about committing suicide?" he abruptly asked about 35 students and administrators. Half a dozen hands went up, including his own.
"Those of you who did not raise your hands are either lying or mentally ill. Everybody thinks about suicide, but not everybody goes through with it."
Harris' lecture centered on the problems suicidal people have in communicating with others.
"They speak to us in a different language, a foreign language," he said as he paced back and forth, gesticulating to his audience. "Instead of saying, 'Hey, will you talk to me?' they say, 'I wish I was dead.' Instead of saying, 'Hey, I need some help,' they say, 'I'm going to kill myself.' "
"They are speaking a foreign language (that) I call the language of violence. Now, not many people speak the language of violence. I do," Harris said. "I've lived a violent life . . . I understand violence. I can speak the language of violence. It's not a pretty language. It's a harsh language. . . .
"But the language of violence has a sister language, called the language of feelings. If you can speak the language of feelings, you can understand the language of violence," he said.
"What is the language of feelings?" Harris asked. No one answered. Harris reached down to a young woman in the front row, helped her up, put his powerful arm around her shoulders and gave her a hug. "That is it. That is the language of feelings."
Harris began his law enforcement career in Carmel, Calif., where he worked on the police force, then became an investigator with the Monterey County district attorney's office. He moved to Los Angeles and worked as a security agent at a local junior high school before he became chief of security for the Los Angeles Community Colleges.
Harris started to focus on suicide prevention 11 years ago, after injuries to his knees and back forced him to get out of law enforcement.
"Life had been pretty damn good to me," he said. "I felt I had to make a payback in some way."
He enrolled in college part time while working for the Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Hotline, which he eventually headed. He got a bachelor's degree and two master's degrees, in communications and psychology, at Pepperdine University, a master's at Antioch University and a doctorate in psychology at Sierra University (University Without Walls) in Santa Monica.
In his job for the coroner, Harris researches the medical, psychological and biochemical history of suspected suicide cases. He often talks with family and friends to understand the victim's mental state.
Sometimes, Harris will find that what appears to be a suicide may actually have been an accident.
For example, schizophrenics will sometime hear voices that tell them to jump off rooftops. Since schizophrenics follow the commands of such voices without understanding the consequences, their deaths cannot be termed suicides, said Harris, whose findings are included in the coroner's official report.
Harris talked for more than the scheduled hour and a half, but "the students didn't want to leave," said Darlene Stevenson, associate director of housing at Cal Poly Pomona. "They wanted to hear more and to talk more. Two and three days later, the students were still talking about it."
Harris said part of his job with the coroner's office is counseling angry, frustrated and distraught people, during which he uses the "language of feelings."
"I have a sign in my office that says, 'Caution, I give bear hugs.' I do. That's what I do for a living."