Top Reasons to Perform a Psychological Autopsy

CoronerTalk.com podcast with Darren Dake & Michelle Doscher, PhD, Psychological Autopsy, Dead or Alive

Initially, psychological autopsies were developed to assist death investigators in determining the manner of death for a known individual. This investigative tool is still used to determine questionable or possibly staged deaths. Psychological autopsies are sometimes performed on suicide victims to try to understand their thought processes, prior to their death. The thoughts, behaviors, moods, and events leading up to the suicide are important in establishing a deceased person’s mental state, prior to his/her demise (Bartol and Bartol, 2012). Odd behaviors, as well as dismissed routine behaviors, should be noted, since they may play an intrinsic role in the trigger or events leading up to the suicide.

There is no standard for conducting psychological autopsies, but a proposed protocol has been published along with a list of 13 suggested documents to collect, when theorizing a person’s mental state (Snider, Hane, and Berman, 2006). These documents are intended to paint a clearer picture of who the deceased was and how he was functioning in society. Not only mental and physical health is considered, but also the person’s family history, their demeanor, social circles, and habits are noted.

No amount of information will ever completely explain why a person acts in a manner that warrants investigation. As humans it is natural to want all questions answered, not just for curiosity but also for purposes of healing. So, why do people react differently, even with similar profiles? Human behavior is unique; we each have different triggers, along with different levels of tolerance and reasoning capabilities. No one person is in the same mental state each second of the day; hence, there is no guaranteed procedure that will predict a person’s mood or actions.

Lastly, psychological autopsies are learning tools to teach others about possible correlations between certain physical and mental states which have led to detrimental outcomes. Profiles are theories and not infallible. However, the quantity and quality of data collected is key to any investigative work.

Bartol, C., & Bartol, A. (2012). Introduction to Forensic Psychology: Research and Application. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.

Snider, J., Hane, S., & Berman, A. (2006). Standardizing the psychological autopsy: Addressing the Daubert standard. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 36, 511-518.

In remembrance of the lives lost and lives changed forever at the hand of violence, may we never forget why we continue to search for the truth. ~Michelle Doscher

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