Suicide Watch

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

The LIS'N board did promise to talk with Berger about the complaints to the grievance board.

Berger gave the grievance board a terse response regarding the Rollins matter. He did not practice psychotherapy, he said, he was not trained as a psychotherapist, he did not hold himself out to the public as a psychotherapist, and his services were provided free.

That's all he needed to say.

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.

In a letter back to Berger, program administrator Amos Martinez wrote: "After thorough review of the information available, the Board found that it does not have jurisdiction to intervene with this matter because you do not fall within the definition of an unlicensed psychotherapist..."

However, Martinez added, "Please note that the Board expressed concern with your involvement in this matter and directed the staff to forward a copy of the Board's case to Bea Romer, M.A., and Pat Pascoe, Ph.D., who are listed as honorary directors of the Living Support Network."

Pascoe is no longer listed as an honorary member. She says she resigned her position two or three years ago, not because of complaints or any letter from the board (she doesn't remember receiving one), but because she did not have enough time to keep herself abreast of the operation.

"A reporter called asking me about [LIS'N]," she says, "and I couldn't tell him anything. I just didn't know. That's when I resigned."

Bea Romer, Colorado's former first lady, is still listed as an honorary director on LIS'N's board.

The state grievance board may not have been much of an obstacle to the hotline's operations, but there was a threat to its existence, and it came from an unexpected source: the Capitol Hill Community Center.

The center, where Berger had maintained an office for about ten years, declined to renew LIS'N's lease in January 1998. The decision was simply a matter of practicality, says center spokeswoman Jane Hedlund; the center needed the space for its own offices.

Although Berger had been using the building less and less -- he was confined to a wheelchair and had become much less mobile as his disease progressed -- losing the lease was tough on him, says Roger Oram, president of LIS'N's board of directors.

"Losing that community center was a blow to him," Oram says. "It gave him some official status."

For economic reasons, as well as issues of Berger's mobility, the LIS'N board decided not to look for more office space. And so the hotline was moved permanently to Berger's condo.

The switch made sense in many respects, but it had a negative effect on Berger's volunteer recruitment efforts. "It was easier to get people to come to the community center than to his apartment," Oram explains.

LIS'N no longer sponsors self-help groups, because it has no meeting space, and its roster of volunteers has shrunk considerably. From a high of 35 volunteers, the staff has shrunk to two -- just Berger and Melissa.

Melissa got involved with LIS'N earlier this year after calling the hotline seeking help. "I was having a panic attack," she says, "and I needed to talk it out."

Berger and Melissa became friends, she moved into Berger's apartment, and now she helps with the hotline. (She asked that her last name not be used, because she says she's a victim of "serious" domestic abuse.) She's been answering calls for about three months, and she makes a little money on the side by doing typing for LIS'N. "Melissa is one of the best counselors I have worked with," Berger says. 'She knows a whole lot about issues that are imperative to these people who call. She is able to cut to the quick."

"I can get just about anybody calmed down," Melissa says. "It's a gift I seem to have."

That Melissa has no counseling degree does not bother Berger. That she has not received specific training -- other than listening to some of Berger's old training tapes -- does not bother him, either.

"I am contemptuous of people who say, 'Does she have a degree?'" Berger says. "Credentials, in my opinion, are not that big a deal, although they can be."

But Melissa's involvement with the hotline violates accepted standards in a number of ways, irrespective of her lack of training. (AAS recommends forty hours of initial training, followed by in-service training and evaluation.) "We do not take [volunteers] who are in treatment," says Eleanor Hamm, executive director of the Pueblo Suicide Prevention Center. "They have to have been out of treatment for a while. Certainly we would not take a new victim. Sometimes victims feel strong and believe that they can help. But they need to allow themselves an opportunity to deal with their own trauma.

"Suicide is a highly volatile issue," Hamm continues. "People are tremendously vulnerable." And it's of utmost importance, she says, to make sure that volunteers are not staffing a suicide hotline to somehow meet their own needs.

Melissa, however, has improved LIS'N in at least one way -- she has begun logging the number of calls and keeping track of the types of requests that come in to the line, something Berger hadn't done for years.

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