DENVER — Over the past two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on everyone, county coroners and funeral directors included.
It’s a profession that is normally stoic, where emotions are put aside in the search for answers to explain how or why someone died. For 34 years as a death investigator, Douglas County Coroner Jill Romann has done just that, putting her emotions in check for the sake of science.
“You are functioning on policy, you're functioning on procedure, you're functioning on saying the right words,” Romann said.
But soon, Romann will retire and for the past few years she’s started noticing that everywhere she looks around her community, there are bad memories like the park where a man took his own life or the house where a child died or the railroad tracks where a collision with a train killed someone.
Each time, it was she responded to the scene, investigated, documented, collected the body and then had to go notify the family.
“We might be the last to arrive on the scene. But we are the first to knock on the door. And we're the first to clean up the blood,” Romann said. “I'm going to live with some visions, I think, for a long time.”
For decades in the profession, Romann says it was taboo to talk about mental health. Instead, there was a common phrase among death investigators of “We get it,” where colleagues would acknowledge the trauma and then move on.
Trauma counselors would be offered for mass casualty events but it’s the day-to-day tragedies that haunt Romann.
“I need help. I can't be stoic anymore. It takes its toll,” she said.
Colorado lawmakers have introduced a bill to help. House Bill 22-1221 requires the state’s Behavioral Health Administration to create County Coroner and Mortuary Mental Health and Wellness Program.
The program will be tasked with providing mental health services to coroners, their staff, volunteers, funeral directors and mortuary science practitioners.
It also requires funeral homes and businesses in the field to pay for the mental health and wellness services of their employees if health insurance does not cover those services.
Bill co-sponsor Sen. Rhonda Fields, D-Arapahoe, believes this is an important step forward for the coroner and mortuary community.
“When you open the door, it gives an opportunity for somebody to walk through. When you can tell someone that we will provide and we will fund and we will pay for your behavioral health counseling, then that gives them permission to say it's okay for me to get the help I need,” Fields said.
Fields believe it should be incumbent on all government agencies and businesses to provide an environment that makes employees feel safe and where their well-being is protected and she sees this bill as a part of that conversation.
At its first committee hearing this month, coroner after coroner testified in favor of the bill.
Ian Harwick, an administrator with Denver's Office of the Medical Examiner, spoke about trying to receive mental health services only to be told by his insurance company that trauma-related specialists are not covered by his plan.
Others spoke about how difficult it can be to find a therapist who is trained in handling the type of trauma they need help with.
The bill passed its first committee test and is moving on. However, the three Republicans on the committee voted against the bill, expressing concerns with the financial toll an unfunded mandate can have on businesses.
“I had a friend reach out yesterday who is a corner and mortician and at the end of the day he’s a small business owner and he said this state is just getting too expensive to run a business in and this will just add it to his bottom line,” said Rep. Rod Pelton, R-Cheyenne, during the committee hearing.
A fiscal note attached to the bill calls for $214,000 this fiscal year and $279,000 the next. However, that money would be used for the Department of Human Services for things like education and outreach.
Romann supports the bill and hopes it can help some of her colleagues in the future. With or without the legislation, though, she believes it’s time for coroners and mortuary service employees to start seriously discussing mental health.
“We're having a difficult time. All the corner medical examiner offices are funeral homes, you name it. We all are,” Romann said.
The bill is headed to appropriations as it continues to make its way through the legislative process.