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What Is Psychological Autopsy?

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Authored by K. Thor Jensen in Criminal Law
Published on 07-08-2009

Death is the ultimate secret-keeper – once somebody’s breathed their last, they become in many ways a closed book, never again to share their innermost thoughts and feelings with the world. This can make it difficult for an investigator trying to figure out how they got that way. Thankfully, modern forensic science has many tools at its disposal to wring information from a dead body, including a variety of physical and chemical tests. But the greatest tool for a forensic investigator is their mind, and that’s where the technique of psychological autopsy comes in. This newly popular method uses inference and deduction to provide clues to a person’s demise, and in this article I will provide a brief overview to its main methods and benefits.

The first psychological autopsy I can find reference to occurred in a New York police investigation in the late 1930s, investigating the unusual suicide rates in cops at that time. Unlike most investigations, these studies were conducted in a calm, scientific manner. Detectives were visiting friends and family of the deceased and systematically composing a psychological profile, both under normal circumstances and in the time leading up to their deaths. The actual term “psychological autopsy” was coined by psychiatrist Edwin Shneidman from the Los Angeles Suicide Center in 1958. This was after he and his team assisted the Los Angeles coroner’s office with a number of cases in which the cause of death was unclear.

The essential methods of a psychological autopsy are entirely conversational – first, the investigator identifies the closest people in the deceased’s life, whether they be a spouse, close friends, family, or some other individual. Then, with a clear goal in mind, they ask the subjects a variety of questions that are intended to produce a clearer picture of the dead person’s state of mind in the time leading up to their deaths. There are two major lines of usage in the field – first, as research tools, in which data collected over a large number of cases is used to determine public mental health trends and advocate for treatments and solutions. Second, and more excitingly, is the clinical and legal usage, in which a single deceased is examined to determine cause of death, mental acuity, and possibility of suicide.

The field of psychological autopsy is fascinating, but it can also be considered biased. Because the end result of the autopsy is based on the observations made by the investigator during the course of conversation, there can be room for personal beliefs to make their way into the findings in a way that is less possible with more hard-science approaches. Although the technique has been used in some high-profile cases (including the death of reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes), the practice is still not fully accepted in some areas, and should be used with caution. Psychological autopsies can give us useful additional information about a dead person, but they should only be used in tandem with other investigative methods. However, the performance of a psychological autopsy can also have positive results for the survivors – leading them to a better understanding of their lost loved one in addition to discovering the reason they died.

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