Suicide Watch

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

But many reputable organizations have discovered ways to solve the staffing dilemma. When a hotline is busy, for example, calls to some agencies automatically roll over to another crisis center. Some lines contract with an answering service to contact on-call counselors. Other lines simply use an answering machine, which provides callers with phone numbers for alternative crisis lines.

LIS'N utilized the latter option off and on, with mixed success.

During the first few years of LIS'N's operation, Berger's answering machine referred the callers to Comitis, another crisis group. But the two organizations had a falling-out over the appropriateness of the calls being sent to Comitis, Berger says.

Berger has been accused of trying to develop "social contacts" with suicidal women.
Anthony Camera
Berger has been accused of trying to develop "social contacts" with suicidal women.
Berger says he started the hotline because "people were hurting."
Anthony Camera
Berger says he started the hotline because "people were hurting."

The problem wasn't with the calls, counters Comitis director Richard Barnhill, but with Berger himself, he says. "We have believed for some time that Berger's activities with clients have not been appropriate," he says carefully. Specifically, Barnhill adds, he and others were concerned over what they deemed "interference" by Berger after he referred calls to them.

In response to one Comitis complaint, Eugenia Berger -- Dick Berger's mother and a member of the LIS'N board -- defended the hotline's policy of forwarding the calls. "This seems to be a responsible way of handling the problem when more than one or two persons are calling at the same time," she wrote. "But we do need to be able to refer to another line. The alternative is to have a busy signal; callers in crisis hate busy lines. They want help."

But after LIS'N dropped the Comitis number from its answering-machine message, instead of a referral number, callers to the LIS'N line often got busy signals.

In a 1995 letter to the Mental Health Grievance Board, Kathie Jackson -- then director of the Safe and Drug Free Schools program for the Colorado Department of Education -- reported receiving complaints about LIS'N from counselors with the Colorado Mental Health Association and the Boulder County Youth Initiative. Some of their clients, Jackson said, repeatedly tried to call LIS'N's suicide support line only to get "an answering machine or busy signal for prolonged periods of time."

The reason for that was apparent when Jackson visited LIS'N's office: Berger answered the hotline himself the majority of the time. "When he is tired or unavailable," Jackson observed, "he removes the phone from the hook and an answering machine takes over."

The message on the answering machine asked people to leave their name and number. "You'll be called back," it promised. But sometimes callers discovered that the answering machine was full, Jackson said, and they were unable to leave a message at all.

And even when Berger was answering the phones, he sometimes had no time to speak with a caller.

In a January 1995 letter to the mental-health grievance board, a caller reported receiving short shrift from Berger.

Initially, the Lakewood woman wrote, she'd called a group called Women in Crisis "because of a devastated state." But a staffer there felt she needed to talk with a suicide-prevention agency. It was a Saturday, so the crisis center staffer called LIS'N to make sure someone would be able to speak with the woman at length.

The staffer told the caller that Berger was available "and had given his okay," the woman wrote. "I called immediately in a histerical [sic] state of mind.

"I was told almost immediately by Mr. Berger that he was attending an art show, and could I call him back Sunday or Monday, and that Monday would be better. I never conveyed my situation and the seriousness of what was happening to me. Mr. Berger hung up."

Although the woman eventually was able to get help from another crisis agency, she remained upset by Berger's behavior.

"The help line run by Mr. Berger is bogus," she complained to the grievance board. "It needs to be looked into. He's getting funding for a job he isn't doing. I found out the hard way. I'm still alive and well because of another line ... Someone else may not be so lucky! Please help!"

But the grievance board couldn't help.

"The board found that it does not have jurisdiction to intervene in this matter, because a 'professional' client-therapist relationship did not exist," boardmembers wrote in their response to the complaint. They suggested that if the woman wanted to pursue the matter further, she might consider mediation.

By 1994, some of Berger's own volunteers were beginning to complain about how his hotline was operated.

Chip Frye was one of them.

Before coming to Denver, Frye worked as a volunteer with a suicide hotline in Los Angeles that's known nationally for its prevention work. He also served as a certification examiner for the American Association of Suicidology, a nonprofit group that provides education and training for professionals and volunteers in the area of suicide prevention. (Membership in AAS is voluntary; the organization has no statutory power to enforce its guidelines.)

In the late '80s, Frye became an unpaid trainer for LIS'N, teaching hotline volunteers how to assess crisis situations, how to de-escalate suicidal threats and how to connect someone with psychiatric help if needed.

But as he saw how LISN's hotline was handled, Frye grew worried. His biggest concern, he remembers, was a lack of "safety processes" in the program.

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