Courthouse Journal Blog

The Courthouse Journal is the official weekly newsletter of the Washington Association of County Officials. The Courthouse Journal Blog is a collection of publications relevant to WACO members, their staff, and others. *This blog is not updated on a schedule.

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Feb 09

The Mental Health Impacts of Death Investigations

Posted on February 9, 2024 at 9:00 AM by Timothy Grisham

When asked why Coroners or Medical Examiners matter, a common saying usually begins a complex answer, “Everybody dies, and people die everyday.” This of course can sound glib, but as a matter of fact it is true. In Washington, county Coroners and Medical Examiners work some of the most devastating cases, are witness to the aftermath of the highest levels of violence that most people seldom see.

Despite this, unlike police, fire, EMT, ER nurses, and other state employees – staff in Coroner and Medical Examiner offices are not eligible for Washington State Department of Labor and Industries services for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) because they are not listed as a job type where PTSD qualifies as a occupational disease. 

House Bill 1974 sponsored by Rep. Peter Abbarno, R-Centralia, aims to fix this omission. “They will respond to infant deaths, deaths in the community where they live, seeing friends and family, being called out of their homes at all hours of the day,” Abbarno said. “And it has a substantial impact on them.”

The American Mental Health Foundation agrees, in 2018 a report by the foundation concluded that, “Medical research has shown that first responders to critical incidents may develop PTSD, and its presence in first responders occurs at a higher incidence than in the general population as well as among military veterans returning from active combat… [However] there have been only three studies that have assessed the impact of critical incidents and PTSD in coroner personnel. Each of these studies has documented the presence of both PTSD and depression.”

Coroner and medical examiner offices work side by side with law enforcement to conduct scene investigations for all types of death, including suicide, homicide and violent, unusual or sudden deaths. But where law enforcement work may end at the scene of the crime, their jobs are not done when they leave the scene. Medical examiners are then left with the job of determining the cause and manner of death and the solemn job of communicating and treating grieving family members.

“The goal of bills like this is to identify there are certain jobs and careers that have a higher level of this type of stress and traumatic experiences, and we want to make sure that those workers are able to continue to do their jobs in the right way,” Abbarno said.

During testimony for the bill, Snohomish County Chief Death Investigator Robert Karinen stated, “I’ve witnessed how daily exposure to traumatic events has created an alarming turnover rate among new investigators. Recently, at the American Academy of Forensic Science, I sat in a meeting that said the average tenure for a new employee is only five years, and this is definitely consistent, from what I’ve seen.”

While turnover is high, many Coroners and Medical Examiners do lead long and fulfilling careers, only they are not equipped with the same support systems as their peers in the first responder communities – creating a workforce dilemma for the vital county ran service.