Archive for Sunday, September 14, 2008

Crisis counselor shares survivors’ grief

September 14, 2008


Marcia Epstein lost her mother, Abba Howell, to suicide five years ago. Epstein, the executive director of Headquarters Counseling Center, 211 E. Eighth St., displayed a photo of her mother, at right, on Thursday.

Marcia Epstein lost her mother, Abba Howell, to suicide five years ago. Epstein, the executive director of Headquarters Counseling Center, 211 E. Eighth St., displayed a photo of her mother, at right, on Thursday.

Marcia Epstein was the good daughter.

She always had been. Growing up, she watched out for her brothers as they moved from place to place - California, Texas, Kansas City - as her divorced mother and alcoholic stepfather battled life.

Decades later, she still did what good daughters do - she always called her mother before she traveled. This particular week there was an added reason to do so. Epstein's birthday was approaching, and she wouldn't be home to celebrate it with her mother.

As the director of Lawrence's Headquarters Counseling Center, Epstein was spending the week in Santa Fe, N.M., at a National Suicide Prevention conference.

On her actual birthday - her 48th - there was a voicemail waiting for Epstein on the hotel phone. It was from her husband, asking her to call home.

"I could tell from the tone of his voice that it wasn't to wish me happy birthday," Epstein said.


It was 1975 in Lawrence when Epstein - a self-described lackadaisical Kansas University student - first walked into the offices of Headquarters Counseling Center.

"It was a very casual, hippie environment, which really wasn't me," Epstein said. "But the people were very nice."

So she stayed.

She remembers the first case that she went out on a short time later. An elderly woman in the Oread Neighborhood was feeling depressed. She needed someone to talk to. Epstein and a trained staff member went to the home. Jar lids were on the floor, and the woman wanted Epstein to check in the home's attic.

"I remember hearing strange noises behind me," Epstein said. "That's when I realized there were mice. She was feeding mice out of the jar lids."

Epstein didn't check the attic, but she stayed with Headquarters.

"We talked to the lady and she felt better," Epstein said.

Since 1979 - when she asked to be on the hiring committee to select the center's next director but instead was told to apply for the job - Epstein has been the public face of suicide prevention in Douglas County.

This past week, it's been a face that has been a little bit of everywhere. It was National Suicide Prevention Week, and Epstein was busy with public events - proclamation readings, library gatherings, speaking engagements. But it was a Sunday morning moment at home that likely will stick out above any public event of the last week. On Sept. 7, Epstein picked up the Journal-World and read about a life that was ended in a Lawrence parking lot via a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Epstein's morning began with the emotion that the director of Headquarters Counseling most often fights.

"I just felt so sad," Epstein said. "When I think about suicide, what I think about is the sadness that this person thought there was no other choice."

There are victories, of course - hearing the panic ease from a caller's voice, making a call-back to a client and they pick up the phone.

But it can be tough to appreciate the triumphs. The suicide rate in Douglas County is higher than the national average. In 2007 there were 17, and this year there have been at least six. The national annual average for a county this size is 11 deaths by suicide. But even if Douglas County were to reach that level, it would be hard to take comfort in "just" 11 deaths.

Maybe that is why during its first 10 years of existence, Headquarters had five different executive directors. In its last 29, it has had just one.

"I wish there were more people who would do more to make a difference, but I'm not willing to just step away and see what happens," Epstein said. "There's just so much need."


A futon sits in the corner of the center office at the Headquarters Counseling Center, 211 E. Eighth St. It is not just there for decoration. It is piled with pillows and blankets. Elsewhere in the office, quilts hang over chairbacks, and there are all the signs that this is a place where employees and volunteers hunker down.

"We literally never close for a minute," Epstein said.

The center operates a 24-hour phone line - 841-2345 - that people can call at any time if they need to talk. The phone line receives about 50 calls a day. The center is on pace to make about 19,000 contacts with individuals this year. That's up from about 14,000 two years ago. Epstein is not sure why the numbers have increased, but she said the national economy, the war in Iraq and all the other traditional problems that weigh on people have many Douglas County residents in crisis.

"Every day we get the kinds of calls that are so intense that we know the person on the other end of the line could die this day," Epstein said.

Epstein - although she's the center's top administrator - said she personally provides counseling services on a daily basis. The center - with a budget of about $200,000 - has four full-time staff members, two part-time employees and about 30 volunteer counselors who must undergo about 100 hours of training.

It is in the little room with the futon and a big black phone that the frontline battles of depression and despair are fought. The phone rings, and oftentimes the stakes are high.

"The call may start off where the person is 95 percent sure that they're going to kill themselves," Epstein said. "But you have to remember that there's a little bit of hope there because they called. Our job is to ratchet up that hope."

And to talk. Epstein's perpetual message is that there's always help available, always someone ready to listen.

"We always have time to talk because I know you can sometimes make a huge difference just by spending 35 minutes on the phone with someone," Epstein said.

Epstein's efforts are generally praised by community leaders. Will Katz has spent the last year getting to know Epstein as a new member of the board of directors for Headquarters.

"Her job is a complete burnout position," Katz said. "Everybody knows people who got out of college and worked a job like that for two or three years and said 'I just can't face it anymore.'

"I think what Marcia can really do is stay in the 'now.' A lot of times when people freak out, they're remembering some painful experience or thinking about some future consequence. She really does a great job of focusing on the now. I would think you'd have to do that to keep going in that job."


It was five years ago that Epstein walked into that Santa Fe hotel room. On the phone message, her husband didn't at all sound like himself.

Perhaps deep down Epstein knew the call concerned her mother. Abba Howell was a first-generation American, the daughter of Russian parents who came to America knowing no English but full of desire. Her father worked his way up from a shop clerk to become a Kansas City banker. But Epstein's mother never reached the top rung of life's ladder.

"She always struggled with her own sense that she lacked self-worth," Epstein said. "She thought she was never good enough for her father. She made a lot of bad choices."

When Epstein called home, her husband delivered the news.

Her mother was dead from a prescription drug overdose. Epstein doesn't doubt it was intentional. Her mother had talked of suicide before and was in counseling.

Suddenly, after more than two decades of helping others deal with the grief of suicide, Epstein was dealing with it personally. And she learned she was a lot like everyone else.

She remembers breaking down while on the phone with the airline company trying to arrange a flight back to Kansas City. "I just handed the phone to my friend and said, 'You have to get me home.'"

She remembers the guilt, the meetings with her brothers where they all wished they would have put their busy lives on hold for a moment to spend more time with their mother.

And she remembers the questions. Would this have happened if she had been in town that day?

All part of the process. Lessons long taught and now learned, including the cruelest of them all.

"There is nothing," Epstein said, "that is an absolute protection from this."


Ronda Miller 9 years, 8 months ago

No more Pogo bashing fans of Marcia and HQ - let us move on to how wonderful HQ , staff, and people in the support groups are to and with each other. It is a needed service and they are doing a terrific job.Pogo - I am not new to Lawrence.

Pro_Counsel 9 years, 8 months ago

"Given I was there when Epstein first walked in the door and was around for a good deal after the fact, I know from where of I speak."Methinks we've touched on the personal, rather than rational, reasons previously alluded to. (Should we ask why they had to let you go?)Just how much do you think it's worth paying if even a single life is saved, Pogo? I assume you realize that the entire annual budget of Headquarters is less than what it costs for one major life-saving operation for a Medicaid-funded or indigent patient at LMH? Is that a waste of money, too?

tangential_reasoners_anonymous 9 years, 8 months ago

Pogo: "The "service" is useless relative to the money spent on it and is nothing relevant to the community, for the most part. Granted, it serves a small:.very small niche:."One has to wonder what caliper was applied in that final assessment.

tangential_reasoners_anonymous 9 years, 8 months ago

alterego: "One has to wonder what caliper was applied in that final assessment."If the only tool in the toolbox is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail.

kansasrose 9 years, 8 months ago

Marcia Epstein is a local treasure. When I think of all of the lives she and Headquarters have saved... we are so so fortunate to have Marcia here! Thank you, Marcia!

guesswho 9 years, 8 months ago

Pogo.....Sounds like you are feeling very frustrated about HQ.

christy kennedy 9 years, 8 months ago

Thank you Marcia, and everyone else at Headquarters. I don't know who "Pogo" is since, like so many others who comment in a similar tone, he/she is anonymous. But also like the others, the comment says much more about the commenter than anything else.

ebyrdstarr 9 years, 8 months ago

Headquarters doesn't just need financial support, it needs volunteers. I worked there for 3 years and there were never enough counselors to staff the center the way we wanted. Please consider volunteering, no matter your age or stage in life. We had lots of college students, of course, but we also had professionals, retirees, etc. I had a demanding, full-time job and was long out of college when I volunteered there. It is a time commitment, but the experience is so rewarding. And the friendships you make will last. Some of the best people I know in Lawrence, I met through HQ.

Ronda Miller 9 years, 8 months ago

Pogo, I can only imagine what type of life you must have had to make you so hateful. I am sorry for that and I hope someday you are able to find peace and joy within yourself so you don't have to make yourself feel better by belittling others. I mean this sincerely, Pogo.

lawrencefan 9 years, 8 months ago

Thank you Marcia, and thank you Headquarters staff. You've touched peoples' lives when we thought no one cared. You show us day-in-day-out that life is precious. There is no greater gift.Headquarters operates on a shoe string budget. Now more than ever, this organization needs our financial help. If you've read this story about Marcia and Headquarters and its opened your eyes to the immeasurable value of their services, please make a financial gift in support of their efforts. We may think we will never need their caring support, but if one day we realize we do, we'll want a Headquarters counselor to be there for us. Your contribution makes that possible.Thank you.

Pro_Counsel 9 years, 8 months ago

Hats off to Marcia for both what she does with Headquarters and for sharing her own personal story. Working with suicidal people is one of the most challenging parts of the business. One of the first things they teach you in school is that if someone is really set on ending their life, there's nothing you can do to stop it, yet you have to approach every one as if you can.Pogo, I don't know what you have against Headquarters or Ms. Epstein, but it sounds personal rather than rational. Crisis-oriented agencies such as Headquarters are intended to be an adjunct to CMHC's like Bert Nash, the services they offer to the community are not mutually exclusive, nor are they redundant. What is your concern that the same people call Headquarters over and over ... is it supposed to be one-and-done, if you're not 'fixed' after the first call you're out of chances? Oh, right, they should go to Bert Nash. While I certainly hope Bert Nash has a crisis team, it is not the same thing as having 24/7 support available to those facing the ultimate choice in their lives. As for "a self-help, counseling, suicide prevention service, all in one slot," I'd like to know how you plan to pay for that; try doing all those things on the shoestring budget Ms. Epstein survives with. "...a social service agency that does not carry it's own weight in the community and has to continually beg for money from the community? The money spent on this useless service could be spent helping the working poor re-hab their homes or rebuild the neighborhoods."Are you serious? "Carry it's [sic] own weight?" Charge suicidal clients for Headquarters' services? Maybe set up a 900- number? Or maybe you think the measly $200K that goes to this crisis center would solve all the problems of the working poor, and then nobody would be suicidal? Can you really be THAT naive?

agrabass 9 years, 8 months ago

...hey Pogo Headquarters saved my life. I thank them. My 16, 9, and 7 year old thank them. I am most thankful for the fact that I was not talking to you the night I needed help. With your energy I am pretty sure you would have poured the drink that would have made those pills go down so much smoother. Thank you Headquarters, and Pogo karma will get you.

Buggie7 9 years, 8 months ago

Thank you to all of the HQ staff and Marcia and the volunteers.Pogo states that he was there when Marcia walked in the door. Hmmmm sounds like it was clear she was more qualified for the position than Pogo and Pogo is a lil sore about that. Anyway, there are people who will not go to places like Bert Nash that end up having people call HQ or they go ahead and commit suicide due to the fact that they have to make an appt. The appt is usually about 3 weeks away. For those who stick it out and decide to wait for an appt hoping they can afford it, HQ is a wonderful resource to help them in their time of need until they can get at least to that date. Most cant afford even the sliding scale that therapists have and then when they go they get meds that im sure they cannot afford as well. HQ provides so many things to these people that their services are wonderful.

bearded_gnome 9 years, 8 months ago

just ignore Pogo,he/she has posted similar rants under stories about other local social service agencies. one must conclude that Pogo is a very sad angry small-minded person. ***thank you Marcia for what you do. Headquarters has saved many lives. thank you for sharing this, didn't know you had suffered this loss to suicide yourself; quite possibly, your story will encourage others who are suicide survivors. Pro is right, this is the toughest area of working with people. every gesture needs to be taken as serious. thanks for HQ, I've sent people there because it works, and can be relied on for support in times of crisis.

Pro_Counsel 9 years, 8 months ago

"I left of my own my free will"Why do I doubt that they begged you to stay (making my question "why they had to let you go?" still valid).From your comments, it's apparent you believed the agency should be operated in a different manner and taken in a different direction than you wanted ... and you lost. I don't think Buggie7's suggestion that you wanted Marcia's job for yourself is much of a stretch. In any event, from your posts here and in other threads on MH issues, it's also apparent you aren't still in the field ... suggesting you were a volunteer, and resented the infusion of those college-educated interns and fully licensed professionals transforming your 'drop-in center' (where people could come by and get their drugs tested) into a real counseling center that left you in the cold.Of course, I'm surmising (but I'd wager I'm not too far off), and I'm sure you'll feel the need to respond as you have been. But if you read the rest of the comments, Pogo, I think you'll find that nobody reading this believes your denigration of Ms. Epstein or the agency is based on anything other than petty personal reasons.

Christine Anderson 9 years, 8 months ago

Pope:You are nothing more than a mamzer for making those sort of comments about Ms. Epstein! Shame on you!

Ronda Miller 9 years, 8 months ago

I couldn't agree more with the postive comments posted about Marcia and Headquarters. Marcia is a constant in so many troubled lives and I can say for a fact that she has made my life better through her terrific laugh, sympathetic ear, and understanding heart. I don't know any of the volunteers at Headquarters, but I do know that Headquarters has taken a huge loss in operating expenses this year and needs all of our help to keep their wonderful community service work available. As someone who also lost my mother to suicide, as well as my beloved niece, Sorrel, I know from a personal perspective the never ending cycle of grief caused by suicide. The thoughts of what did I do wrong, what could I have done to prevent it, why didn't they love me enough not to do it, why didn't I see the pain they were in, etc., etc., are with us forever, but having a place to go and people to talk to who understand make a huge difference in the lives of someone who has been destroyed by this experience.The work Marcia and her staff do is an example of the "ripple" effect in the most intricate and life changing ways. Please consider helping her do her job to help others by offering your services or opening your wallet and/or pocket book. You won't have any idea how many lives you will better.I also want to thank the Lawrence Journal World for not only doing this article about Marcia, her work, and her personal loss, but for doing it so thoroughly and so tastefully. Thank you. And thanks to Marcia for being brave enough to talk about her pain in such a public manner. The more we talk about suicide the better we understand it, and hopefully to understand the reasons behind it will help prevent it.

Chris Ogle 9 years, 8 months ago

Epstein does a fantastic job. I too, have lost a loved one to suicide, and that feeling of "what if I had...." never really goes away. Epstein and Headquarters are needed in our coummunity. Thanks for helping countless people.

Tracy Myers 9 years, 8 months ago

Thank YOU HQ and Marcia! If it were not for you and your organization, one of my loved ones would not be here today. People like Pogo need your help. It all begins with low self esteem and builds from there sometimes....poor Pogo. Pogo, I will pray for you. God Bless you!Thank you HQ, you have helped others to help themselves and saved many lives by just being there and knowing how to handle a situation.If Pogo had a loved one who took advantage of this and it saved their life, he/she would probaly change their tone.Go ahead Pogo, shoot off something that is supposed to sound intelligent. You wont change my views and its comical to read your ignorance that you choose to type out.Go Marcia and HQ (from your fan section)

quietgirl 9 years, 8 months ago

Pogo - would you be willing to tell us your real name? For those of us who have been in lawrence for many years and had some sort of involvement with HQ it would be nice to put a name or face with your opinions.

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