About three years ago, prosecutor Brian Mason walked into work at the 17th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, and instead of opening a file or helping his colleagues, he closed his office door and laid down.
“My palms were sweaty, and my heart was racing so fast I couldn’t make it stop,” Mason said. “And I wasn’t in that condition for a day or an hour, but for several weeks and several months, triggered in part by a gruesome double homicide scene that I had gone out on personally. I was essentially in a state of permanent panic attack.”
Mason, now the elected district attorney for Broomfield and Adams counties, was at the time the lead prosecutor on the double homicide. He’d gone to the scene, then looked again and again at the crime scene photos as he prosecuted the case.
He couldn’t get the images of death out of his head.
“I really hit rock bottom,” he said. “It was debilitating and I needed help… If I hadn’t gotten that help, I would not have lasted in the profession, and I certainly would not be district attorney today.”
Mason recovered through professional therapy, and he’s now throwing his support behind an effort by Colorado lawmakers to earmark $500,000 to boost mental health services for public defenders and prosecutors across the state.
The bipartisan bill, SB22-188, aims to fund counseling services, education about secondary trauma and peer support services for prosecutors and public defenders. The bill would give $250,000 to the Office of the Colorado State Public Defender and $250,000 to the Colorado District Attorney’s Council, which the organization would then distribute to individual district attorney’s offices.
Research has shown attorneys are at a higher risk of depression, suicide and substance abuse than people who don’t work as attorneys, and lawyers face significant secondary trauma on the job, according to the American Bar Association.
Last summer, a deputy district attorney in the Fourth Judicial District, which covers El Paso and Teller counties, died by suicide after sending a lengthy email to everyone in the district attorney’s office in which he outlined grievances at work.
That email prompted a significant effort to try to find the deputy DA, who was missing for several days after sending the email, office spokesman Howard Black said.
“It was full-blown,” Black said. “You have someone who is in pain and you can tell is hurting. It was a full-court press to try to find him and get help, send messages to him, every way possible, family involved, it was — there was not a lot of sleep for a few days until he was found.”
The prosecutor’s body was found in early August in Chaffee County; his death sent shockwaves through the district attorney’s office, which brought in outside therapists for his colleagues.
“It’s all of the guilt, the, ‘Oh shouldn’t we have seen that, should we have done this?’” Black said. “…It’s taken a long time, and the healing is still going on. There’s still a lot of pain.”
He said any additional funding for mental health programs would be welcomed, and that the office is in the process of setting up a peer-to-peer support program.
The money set out in the bill will allow some offices to bolster their existing programs while others may be able to offer training for the first time, district attorneys said.
“This work takes a heavy toll”
The Office of the Colorado State Public Defender started a peer support program about two years ago, but did so without any extra funding or outside resources, said James Karbach, director of legislative policy for the office.
The public defender’s office, which has about 1,000 people on staff statewide, now has about 10 peer supporters who have seen increasing demand for their help. If the bill passes, the public defender’s office could use the funds to bolster the peer support program.
“We know this work takes a heavy toll on the people doing it, including on their mental health, and that we need to support them,” said Megan Ring, who heads the statewide office.
Public defenders can currently seek mental health care through their health insurance or on their own, but have run into some roadblocks with scheduling and finding therapists who understand the job, Karbach said.
“We see very challenging subject matter in these cases that involves acts of harm and violence to others. We also routinely engage with clients who are going through the worst experiences of their lives,” Karbach said. “Further, we are in an adversarial environment in the courtroom, which can be tense and challenging, and filled with conflict. And we experience long work hours and very heavy workloads where we have to transition between these cases very quickly.”
Mason and other district attorneys said they hope increased mental health services would also help their offices retain prosecutors at a time when staying fully staffed is difficult.
“I just lost a 17-year veteran of the prosecution community a couple months ago due to burnout and mental health exhaustion,” Mason said. “He didn’t go to another DA’s office, he just left the prosecution profession entirely.”
Boulder County District Attorney Michael Dougherty said his office has cobbled together funding for mental health training through grants and temporary sources, but the money in the bill would provide more permanent funds. He added that prosecutors and public defenders need to take care of themselves in order to best do their jobs, which often have long-lasting, far-reaching impacts.
“It’s in everyone’s best interest that, whether someone is coming down to the courthouse on a traffic case, or serving as a juror on a homicide case, you want the person who is making those decisions to be of sound mind and body,” he said. “You want that person to be up to the task.”
Not just attorneys experiencing trauma
Denver District Attorney Beth McCann told the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday that the bill’s funding could also support non-attorney staff within her office, like investigators, who are also exposed to trauma on the job.
“We have an investigator and secretarial staff who had difficult time dealing with a terrible case of a young boy who was essentially starved to death and his body was placed in concrete and stored in a storage locker,” she said, apparently referring to the death of 7-year-old Caden McWilliams. “The photographs of that are very disturbing… It isn’t just the lawyers, it’s our staff that can be impacted by these scenes and the horrific type of things we encounter.”
McCann said she believes the funding will have the largest impact on Colorado’s smaller district attorney’s offices, which otherwise could not afford to pay for training on job-related trauma.
The bill, which has passed the Colorado Senate, was moved out of the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.
The funding set aside in the bill is a “good start,” Mason said, but isn’t enough to address the full need. There are about 1,800 people working in district attorney’s offices across the state, according to an estimate prepared by Legislative Council Staff.
“My story is not uncommon,” Mason said. “We just don’t typically say it out loud.”
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