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Suicide-hotline duel may endanger callers

The founder of a nonprofit hotline says the U.S. is trying to put him out of business.

Published August 19, 2006

In Hillsborough County, the Suicide & Crisis Hotline is (813) 234-1234.

In Pinellas County, the crisis hotline run by Personal Enrichment Through Mental Health Services is (727) 791-3131. Cell phone users call (727) 210-4211.

In Pasco, Hernando and Pinellas counties, the Harbor Behavioral Health Care answers crisis calls: (727) 849-9988.

In Citrus County, the crisis hotline is (352) 629-9595.

Both 1-800-784-2433 and 1-800-273-8255 will refer those in crisis to local centers immediately.

The country's largest crisis hotline - 1-800-SUICIDE - may shut down if its founder doesn't pay his overdue phone bills by next Friday.

H. Reese Butler, the founder of 1-800-SUICIDE, or 1-800-784-2433, is accusing the federal government of creating a rival hotline to run him out of business and get access to confidential data on people.

Butler says that because of this competition, his hotline is running out of cash and expects to go out of business next week unless it comes up with a way to pay $67,000 of its $177,000 in past-due phone bills.

Federal officials and mental health agencies say Butler's claims are false and could endanger the lives of mentally fragile individuals by frightening them away from both hotlines. More than 200 crisis centers across the country, including centers in the Tampa Bay area, depend on the two hotlines to connect them to people in need of immediate help.

"The last thing we want to do is create any problem for people who are experiencing acute problems," said Tom Wedekind, executive director of the Pinellas County-based Personal Enrichment Through Mental Health Services.

About 150 calls a month are routed from the two numbers to his agency, Wedekind said.

The toll-free hotlines - 1-800-SUICIDE, which is a private nonprofit, and 1-800-273-TALK, or 1-800-273-8255, which was created by a federal agency - do not take calls but route them to crisis centers near the callers' home towns.

They are the only national suicide-prevention lines, and together they handle 40,000 phone calls a month, most of which go to 1-800-SUICIDE.

"We are truly concerned with what happens if it doesn't ring," said Debra Harris, director of 211 Tampa Bay, an information referral and crisis counseling agency in Tampa. "What happens to those callers who are very depressed, who are very despondent and try to pick up the phone?"

Butler has been credited with being the first to link crisis centers with a national referral line.

Before 1-800-SUICIDE, people in crisis had to find counseling centers on their own and, if the crisis lines at one center were closed or busy, they had to seek out others.

With 1-800-SUICIDE and 1-800-273-TALK, software automatically checks the caller's area code and routes the call to the nearest center. If one center is closed or busy, the hotline rolls the caller over to another. For callers, the process is invisible.

"It's already hard enough for people to reach out," said Timothy Jansen, executive director of Community Crisis Services in Prince George's County, Maryland. "If they think that just by picking up the phone that Big Brother is out to get them, they're not going to do it as easily."

For Butler, the effort has been a personal crusade.

His wife, Kristin, committed suicide in 1998 at age 28 after their daughter was stillborn. He founded the Kristin Brooks Hope Center and set up the hotline.

After moving from San Francisco to the Washington area in 2000, he attracted the attention of Congress. It added funding to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's budget for suicide prevention, and the Kristin Brooks Hope Center received a three-year subcontract from the American Society of Suicidology to fund the hotline.

But in recent years, Butler has run into financial difficulty and feuded with the U.S. agency and the society.

In 2004, the federal agency declared the Hope Center and the American Society of Suicidology in violation of terms of the grant, alleging that they had entered into contracts with corporations without its approval and that Butler had put family members on the payroll.

Butler acknowledged having hired his son, Hank, but said he removed him from the payroll when he was notified of the agency's concerns.

Butler's grant was not renewed and, when it expired in December 2004, the federal mental health agency created 1-800-273-TALK. It contracted with a New York organization to run it.

Butler received some funding last year from the National Mental Health Association, but that ended in March, and the center has been scrambling since.

Butler's struggles have exasperated mental health counselors who have worked with him for years. They praise his passion for the hotline but say his business skills are weak.

Butler says the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration owes him $266,000 for expenses incurred during the grant - a claim the agency denies - and says it has created a "government-run system" that allows the agency to find out who calls for help.

"If they don't need to have the data, then why do they need to own the hotline?" Butler asked. "The only justification for owning the hotline is that they get access to the data."

Not so, the agency said. The only information it collects, it said, is the number of calls referred to each crisis center. And crisis centers say that unless they believe a caller is in imminent danger of suicide, no information is shared with authorities.

Butler has offered to lease his widely known phone number to the federal agency, as long as he can remove personal information - such as callers' phone numbers - before the agency sees it.

The agency has refused, saying the offer "was not in the best interest of the program" or the agency, spokeswoman Shelly Burgess said.

If 1-800-SUICIDE shuts down, callers will get a message referring them to the other hotline. But crisis centers say they are concerned that some vulnerable callers wouldn't dial a second number to get help.


[Last modified August 19, 2006, 01:28:56]

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