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Aurora VA’s suicide prevention center rife with “emotional, mental and psychological abuse”

The center’s director, Dr. Lisa Brenner, has been moved to another job amid a VA investigation

Brooke Dorsey Holliman at her home in Aurora on Thursday, Dec. 7, 2023. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)
Brooke Dorsey Holliman at her home in Aurora on Thursday, Dec. 7, 2023. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)
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In March 2018, the director of the Rocky Mountain Mental Illness Research, Education, and Clinical Center at the Aurora Veteran Affairs hospital walked into the office of one of her employees.

Dr. Lisa Brenner, one the nation’s leading clinical research psychologists in suicidology, went over to a Black employee and grabbed a handful of the woman’s long “Poetic Justice”-style braids.

“If I were you,” Brenner said according to the employee, yanking slightly on her hair, “I’d rather be bald like one of those warrior women in ‘Black Panther.'”

The employee didn’t know what to say.

“You feel completely invisible,” the woman said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because she still works for the VA. “How do you respond when someone in a position of power says something like this?”

Department staff say the incident represents just one of many troubling encounters with Brenner. The union of Aurora VA workers in March compiled a report from 28 staffers, outlining the “emotional, mental and psychological abuse exhibited by Brenner” over the years.

The center — known as the MIRECC — provides research, education and treatment aimed at suicide prevention among veterans. But the union’s report, along with interviews with more than half a dozen current and former employees, paint the picture of a workforce that struggles mightily with their own mental health under a fearsome boss known for retaliation, intimidation and, they say, unequal treatment of people of color.

“The work culture there is very toxic,” said Dr. Brooke Dorsey Holliman, a former employee. “People are scared to speak up.”

The union asked the VA’s executive leadership to conduct a third-party investigation into Brenner. That hasn’t happened, according to the union.

But a day after The Denver Post sent the VA questions about Brenner’s tenure, leadership said it would investigate the union’s concerns. The same day, employees learned Brenner has been detailed to the VA’s national office for suicide prevention on a temporary assignment.

Brenner, through a VA spokesperson, declined an interview request for this story. Her attorney, in a statement, said Brenner would “cooperate fully in any investigation and hope the MIRECC’s work will benefit from the process.”

The VA also declined to answer a list of detailed questions from The Post.

Kayla Giuliano, an agency spokesperson, said in an email that the VA “is committed to ensuring a safe, welcoming, and harassment-free environment for all employees.”

The allegations inside the MIRECC come amid a turbulent time for the VA’s Eastern Colorado Health Care System, which provides services to 100,000 veterans across the Front Range and Eastern Plains.

VA leaders recently reassigned the system’s director, Michael Kilmer, and his chief of staff over concerns about “operational oversight, organizational health and workplace culture.” The agency refused to specify the exact concerns that led to the changes.

More than a dozen current and former doctors, nurses and administrators outlined to The Post last month a hostile work climate that closely mirrors the stories from Brenner’s employees — an environment where fear and retaliation run rampant.

The Post also found the VA’s prosthetics department chief was instructing employees to delete orders in order to eliminate a backlog.

The Rocky Mountain Regional VA Medical Center in Aurora on Nov. 9, 2023. This image was made using homemade plastic filters that the photographer attached to a 50mm lens to give the image a stylized blur effect. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)
The Rocky Mountain Regional VA Medical Center in Aurora on Nov. 9, 2023. This image was made using homemade plastic filters that the photographer attached to a 50mm lens to give the image a stylized blur effect. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

The “Brenner tornado”

The mission of the MIRECC is to study suicide “with the goal of reducing suicidal ideation and behaviors in veteran population,” according to its website.

Staff work on clinical interventions — along with “cognitive and neurobiological underpinnings of suicidal thoughts and behaviors” — that could lead to promising prevention strategies. The center also provides educational materials and makes research being done across the country accessible.

Brenner has served as the center’s director since 2010, according to her LinkedIn profile, and is a professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

She is considered a leading expert in the field of suicidology, particularly the relationship between traumatic brain injury and negative mental health outcomes. She’s published extensively over her career and has earned several industry awards and recognitions.

“With that kind of recognition there is a lot of power,” said Dr. Samantha Farro, a psychologist who worked for Brenner.

Former employees say Brenner fostered a competitive, demanding work environment at the MIRECC. Staff would be pitted against one another.

“She demanded a high level of excellence,” Farro said. “It got very intense — definitely a level of intensity I have not seen in any of the places I’ve worked.”

Brenner held weekly all-staff meetings, where she stood in the front of the room and called on employees to report the amount of money they brought in or articles that had been accepted for publication. She publicly shamed those who hadn’t hit these goals, said Dr. Cynthia Grant, a former employee.

“People would leave this meeting in tears,” Grant said. “It was horrible. You could cut the tension with a knife in these meetings.”

Staff said Brenner’s leadership resembled a dictatorship. They even have a term — the “Brenner tornado” — for when the boss begins to get irritated.

“Emotional, mental, and psychological abuse”

On March 28, the American Federation of Government Employees Local 2241 — the union representing MIRECC employees — sent a seven-page memo to the VA’s executive leadership.

The report, compiled from over 28 respondents, outlines “several concerning themes and similarities which have been revealed to the union regarding Dr. Brenner and her leadership in MIRECC.”

Fifteen staffers said they do not feel safe “due to the emotional, mental, and psychological abuse exhibited” by Brenner. Eleven people said she creates a toxic environment and culture. Fourteen said she instills a culture of fear in employees and “threatens employment to control them.” Eight said Brenner is manipulative. Twenty-one said they have been embarrassed, humiliated or called out in front of others. Six called her “narcissistic.”

Others told the union that Brenner retaliates against employees by removing them from assigned projects, withholding step increases and earned bonuses and denying promotions.

“Dr. Brenner is well known in the community,” the memo states. “Constant fear by staff that she will ruin your career if you upset her or if she feels she has been betrayed by you.”

Nine people told the union that Brenner, despite working in suicide prevention, discourages mental health treatment for employees. She views mental health “as not important and as being weak and vulnerable for staff to engage in,” the memo states.

“You didn’t feel that was supported,” Holliman, a former employee, said. “It would have been laughed at.”

The union’s report also alleges Brenner mixes personal travel and business. The director allegedly used a government vehicle on trips to visit family and has been known to upgrade flights to first class, the union said. Brenner was also accused of misusing funds on trips to cover non-work expenses.

Staff had valid concerns about the risk to their careers if the issues persist, the memo states.

The union requested the VA’s executive leadership initiate a formal third-party, impartial investigation. The memo made its way to Kilmer, the VA’s Eastern Colorado director, who was reassigned in October amid oversight investigations. The memo also went to the VA’s regional Rocky Mountain Network, which oversees several health care systems across the West.

In June, a union steward sent an email to members, saying the executive leadership was unable to move forward with an investigation due to the anonymous nature of the allegations. As a result, the union filed an anonymous complaint with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal investigative and prosecutorial agency.

An attorney with the federal agency told the union that month that they did not believe they could prove the MIRECC’s actions constituted a prohibited personnel practice.

Giuliano, the VA spokesperson, told The Post this week that leadership is now investigating the union’s concerns.

“Whenever there are allegations of wrongdoing, we investigate thoroughly and take appropriate action,” she said in a statement.

On Tuesday, a day after The Post sent a list of detailed questions to the VA about Brenner’s alleged behavior, Eastern Colorado’s interim chief of staff, Mark Kadowaki, sent an email to MIRECC staff announcing major changes to the center.

Brenner, he said, would be moving to a temporary assignment as deputy director for the VA’s national suicide prevention program to support the suicide prevention annual report. There she will continue her research and will be available to the Rocky Mountain MIRECC as an adviser for local suicide prevention efforts, Kadowaki said in the email, which was reviewed by The Post.

Dr. Nazanin Bahraini, the center’s director of research, will become acting director. She told staff in an email Tuesday afternoon that she realized “that this is an unexpected shift and many of you may have a lot of questions.”

“I will do my best to fill her shoes while she is on detail,” Bahraini wrote in the email, which was reviewed by The Post.

Brenner’s attorney, David Schleicher, told The Post in an email that Brenner “looks forward to the opportunity to address the union’s concerns, and agrees about the importance of supporting workplace diversity and the value of providing safe space for raising staff concerns.”

“It was not unexpected that higher management would detail her to allow for an investigation,” Schleicher said.

A recent anonymous 360-degree performance evaluation by colleagues at various job levels shows Brenner scored “above expectations” on a variety of categories, including team building, leveraging diversity and accountability.

“It was horrifying”

The union’s memo doesn’t discuss racism. But multiple former Black employees told The Post they felt like they were treated differently from their straight, white counterparts.

The worker who had her braids pulled by Brenner said another high-ranking MIRECC leader, Dr. Lisa Betthauser, told her in 2017 that she had a bad attitude. In front of several other employees, Betthauser demanded the staffer give up her phone so she could call the woman’s mother to fix her behavior, the employee said.

This woman, upset, told Brenner what had happened.

Brenner, according to this person, said she had “resting bitch face” which may have contributed to Betthauser’s comments (a VA spokesperson did not answer questions about this incident).

“It was horrifying,” the individual said. “Every interaction with Lisa Brenner — she just knows how to make you feel like the smallest person in the room and then step on you even more.”

Holliman, another Black employee, said people in the office would call her and others the “Black girls.” She received her doctorate while working at the MIRECC, but always felt the message from leadership was that she wasn’t good enough.

“I started questioning myself,” Holliman said. “It made it really hard to do my job. You start to think, ‘Maybe she’s right — maybe I’m not cut out for this.'”

Brooke Dorsey Holliman at her home in Aurora on Thursday, Dec. 7, 2023. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)
Brooke Dorsey Holliman at her home in Aurora on Thursday, Dec. 7, 2023. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

White colleagues acknowledged to The Post that they didn’t think the women of color were as supported as others in their ambitions.

Holliman and another former worker remember Brenner complaining that “everything would be so much easier if we could only hire straight white men.”

The implication, Holliman said, was that “diversity creates so many issues.”

After George Floyd’s murder in 2020, the department held a diversity, equity and inclusion listening session. An employee talked about growing up in poverty on an Indian reservation and the racism he still sees directed toward Native Americans.

Brenner interrupted, according to people in the room, making clear that this wasn’t what they were here to discuss.

Other employees recall bizarre, inappropriate behavior from Brenner.

Grant remembers meeting with Brenner with the door closed. Brenner realized that her dress shirt was on backward and proceeded to take it off in front of her subordinate and turn it the right way, Grant said.

“She definitely struggled with boundary violations,” Grant said.

The VA did not answer questions about any of these incidents.

Employees talked about the Stockholm Syndrome they felt working for the MIRECC. It was only once they moved on to other jobs did they fully realize the extent to which they had suffered in the Aurora VA.

Grant took a $50,000 pay cut to leave, she said. Farro said while she respected Brenner as a researcher, she had “no desire to work with her again.” Holliman said her professional life has thrived since she left the VA.

“It was a traumatic experience to work there,” she said.

Former workers said they were glad to see the VA taking their concerns more seriously. But they expressed dismay and confusion that Brenner had ultimately landed in a higher position with the national suicide prevention office. The VA did not answer questions about how many direct reports she’ll have in the new job, if any.

“It’s rewarding bad behavior,” Holliman said. “There’s no real consequence.”

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