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 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.
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