Suicide Watch

Can a 24-hour crisis hotline put callers on hold? The state will get back to you on that.

Dick Berger, executive director of Living Support Network, doesn't want to be interrupted, so he takes the phones off the hook, one by one. His personal line. The Youth Support Line. The Suicide and Crisis Hotline.

"It's okay," Berger explains, his voice competing with the insistent, high-pitched beep of handsets removed from their cradle. "They can leave a message."

"There are other hotlines," points out Melissa, the crisis line's sole volunteer.

Dick Berger, executive director of Living Support Network, has been operating his suicide hotline out of his house.
Anthony Camera
Dick Berger, executive director of Living Support Network, has been operating his suicide hotline out of his house.

Together, Berger and Melissa constitute the entire staff of the Living Support Network (or LIS'N), which is promoted as a 24-hour-a-day "safety net for people who are depressed, suicidal or in need."

Except, of course, for those times when the phones are off the hook. But that's not the only complaint leveled at LIS'N by its critics. They charge that Berger, who established the crisis line sixteen years ago, is actually endangering the lives of the very people he proposes to help. And they're outspoken in their desire to shut LIS'N down or, at the very least, to shut Berger up.

Over the years, hotline volunteers and callers have accused Berger of false advertising, using sexually inappropriate language with women callers, utilizing crisis-line calls to "develop social relationships," staffing the phones with untrained volunteers, failing to provide consistent service and, yes, being unavailable to callers for long stretches of time.

The Colorado Mental Health Grievance Board, which oversees the state's psychologists, has received three formal complaints regarding Berger over the past six years. But while board president Clarissa Pinkola Estes directed at a recent board meeting that the latest Berger complaint receive "fast-track priority" since it deals with the state's "most vulnerable population," nothing is likely to come of it, just as nothing has come of the previous complaints.

The grievance board hasn't intervened because it has no jurisdiction in a case unless a person represents himself as a psychotherapist and charges a fee for his services, explains Amos Martinez, the board's program administrator. And as Berger's attorneys have been quick to point out, LIS'N does not meet those criteria; it is a nonprofit organization funded by grants from charitable foundations, and Berger does not receive a salary.

In fact, it appears that no one, including the newly formed state Office of Suicide Prevention, has jurisdiction over Berger. Anyone with a phone can start up a suicide hotline.

"There is nothing that is unlawful, (or) improper for an individual to exercise his constitutional rights to try to assist persons who contemplate some self injury and turn them to the proper social agency," LIS'N attorney Martin Miller recently wrote the grievance board.

"Richard Berger," Miller continued, "should be commended for his voluntary efforts."

In the late '70s, Berger, now 49, reached the nadir of his existence. A former high school golden boy, Boettcher scholar and onetime law school student, he was spending his days "shlepping up and down Colfax," frequenting Sid King's strip bar and eking out an existence as a freelance writer. "In essence," Berger says, "I was a lowlife. But in a very positive sense."

His slide began after he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and the disease began robbing his legs of strength. He was angry and depressed. "It wasn't that I was suicidal," he recalls, "but I was desperate."

Minutes later, however, he amends his claim. "I tried to do it [suicide] a couple times," he says. "Not very successfully."

During that period, Berger discovered that help was hard to come by. After he sought aid through a number of traditional routes, including therapy and psychiatry, a vocational counselor suggested that Berger go back to school and take up rehabilitation work himself.

Berger graduated from the University of Northern Colorado in 1980 with a master of arts degree in vocational rehabilitation. He found that he enjoyed the counseling aspects of the work, and the same year he graduated, he formed a nonprofit corporation called Suicide/Depression Anonymous. Berger spent the next two years visiting hospitals and self-help organizations, holding telephone consultations and familiarizing himself with research on mental-health issues. "People were hurting, and hurting bad," he says, and few nonprofit groups were stepping into the void to help them.

So in 1982, Berger began conducting weekly self-help meetings. The SDA Crisis Line debuted in 1984. He set up the Youth Support Line -- a crisis phone line for teenagers -- in 1986 and changed the organization's name to the Living Support Network.

For a time, Berger operated out of his home in Capitol Hill. Within a few years, however, the group began renting an office at the Capitol Hill Community Center, at 1290 Williams Street. As a consequence of its tenancy, LIS'N was able to take advantage of low rental rates for the center's meeting rooms, and the organization hosted weekly self-help groups there. Included in the meeting roster were a depression support group and one for suicide survivors.

Despite the businesslike trappings, critics say the crisis line and self-help groups were never run in a professional manner. Of particular concern to people in the suicide-prevention field was LIS'N's dearth of volunteers.

Finding and keeping enough capable volunteers to staff a 24-hour suicide hotline is a difficult, time-consuming task for any agency. "It's tough to sit there and listen to people's agonies," says Diane Ryerson, co-chair of the Suicide Prevention Coalition of Colorado. "It's a huge responsibility, too."

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