Suicide Watch

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

"We started doing it September 4 just so we have an idea how many calls we get at a time," Berger says. "Sometimes we'll get three a day, sometimes 23.

"I don't think anyone ever thought of it before," he says, smiling at Melissa.

But more than five years ago, Kathie Jackson told the grievance board that she had discussed the importance of recordkeeping with Berger. His response, she said, was that he felt "something was better than nothing."

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.

LIS'N's problems continue. At its September meeting, the mental-health grievance board discussed, among other things, yet another complaint regarding Berger and his hotline. Berger appeared before the board in his wheelchair, accompanied by his mother and LIS'N attorney Marty Miller. Although the board's case file remains closed until the board determines whether it has jurisdiction, Miller acknowledges that the charges include accusations of impaired judgment on Berger's part.

"In an unsupported charge by (name deleted), she complains that Richard is using untrained and severely mentally ill persons to answer the crisis line," Miller wrote in a legal memorandum to the board. In addition, Miller wrote, the woman said she feared that Berger's physical impairment could cause him to drop the phone in the middle of a call.

The board took no action at the meeting, because it has not been determined whether the state has jurisdiction over the latest complaint about Berger. Miller, however, contends that it does not. The board is expected to make a decision on the matter by its next meeting, in late November. The complaint has already had one repercussion, though: According to Oram, LIS'N board president Reri MacLean resigned, in large part as a result of it. An old college buddy of Berger's, Oram took the board's reins after MacLean's departure.

Although Berger's methods have been questioned, even his critics believe that his heart is in the right place. "LIS'N has always been an effort of goodwill on the part of Dick Berger, and I've got to give him a lot of credit," says Frye. "I'm sure he has done a great deal of good."

Berger has also been recognized with a number of humanitarian awards, including John Elway's "Hometown Hero" award and the Minoru Yasui Community Volunteer Award. And for now, it appears that his hold on the hotline remains secure. The Boettcher Foundation has given Berger's group a $3,000 grant for this year, and LIS'N's membership in the Community Shares program assures the group another $2,200 -- enough to keep the phones up and running. (The Boettcher grant was a three-year entitlement that expires this year, says a foundation spokeswoman. The trustees select the organizations, "usually from someone they're familiar with or that we've given to before." Community Shares is a cooperative membership organization that raises money through payroll deductions; according to executive director Greg Truog, groups are usually asked to resign their membership only if they fail to honor a commitment to work with Community Shares forty hours per year.)

Berger should expect more heated competition in the hotline field, however. The National Hopeline Network, 1-800-SUICIDE, is now available to callers throughout the state. The calls are answered by Hamm's Pueblo group, which has been AAS certified since 1985. When the Pueblo lines are busy, the calls are routed to the closest available certified crisis center (which, in Colorado's case, might be Los Angeles).

And the Pueblo line, which is run by professional counselors, is subject to regulation by Colorado's Mental Health Grievance Board.

But Berger doesn't worry about competition from the 800 line; there is room for what he does, he says.

Hamm agrees -- to a certain extent.

Sometimes volunteers can establish rapport with callers faster than professionals can. "Some people want to talk to a doctor," Hamm says. "Others want to talk to someone they think genuinely cares. They want to know they're being listened to, and they want someone to understand how much they hurt."

And Berger, she adds, established the hotline from the vantage point of a "consumer," not a professional. Consumers, she says, "see themselves on a peer level with a caller, not a professional level. That's not really appropriate to what we do on our hotline. Our volunteers have strict guidelines to follow.

"I think as long as there is a public awareness of what the limitations are," there may always be a place for grassroots suicide-prevention programs, she adds. "Maybe that's something (Berger) needs to define. Maybe he needs to define for them that he's not a therapist. People need to know that. Unfortunately, when people are hurting, they're desperate to connect with anyone. If they think they're talking to a mental-health center or a hospital, he would have to correct them right away and explain what his limitations are."

And while LIS'N's limitations are considerable, there are only a few other options for people in crisis.

"One reason I think there hasn't been more pressure to shut [Berger] down is because there's no statewide phone system that currently exists," says Frye, calling the situation "a real travesty."

"Here we are, rated one of the top states for suicide, and there's not a statewide center taking calls. It's a failure on all our parts that a center so below standard has been allowed to operate for so many years and put a lot of people in danger."

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