Psychological Autopsy: What is It and Why it’s Done

Psychological Autopsy: What is It and Why it’s Done

The Sushant Singh Rajput suicide case has made headlines for the past 2 months. The latest development in the CBI investigation suggests that the agency is now going to conduct a psychological autopsy (PA) in Sushant’s case.

What Is A Psychological Autopsy?

Back in 1958, a director of the LA Suicide Prevention Center named Edwin Schneidman coined the term “psychological autopsy”. Schneidman initially defined psychological autopsy as “a thorough retrospective investigation of the intention of the decedent.” Now, more than six decades later, a psychological autopsy (PA) is understood as a procedure that helps to classify fatal situations in which the manner of death (e.g., suicide, accident, etc) is uncertain or not immediately clear.

It is an investigative post-mortem procedure wherein suicide risk factors present at the time of death are identified and assessed. This is done to determine the probability or degree of certainty of the manner of death being stated. Usually, a psychological autopsy is carried out in cases where the manner of death is questionable, or the circumstances surrounding the death aren’t very clear. A number of scenarios where psychological autopsy can be employed are suicide, drug-related deaths, autoerotic asphyxia, self-induced asphyxia, drownings, vehicular deaths, staged death scenes, etc.

Therefore, a psychological autopsy is used to help medical examiners, collect data for research, aid in suicide prevention efforts, as well as a forensic tool in the courts. The aim is to gain a deeper understanding of the deceased’s personality, behavior patterns, and possible motives for suicide. Investigators also try to gain insights into factors that may have increased and decreased the deceased’s risk of suicide. In the end, it allows ascertaining whether the deceased was a likely candidate for suicide or not. The following factors are majorly looked at while performing a PA:

  • Identify behavior patterns—reactions to stress, adaptability, changes in habits or routine,
  • Establish a presence or absence of mental illness,
  • Identify possible precipitants,
  • Determine the presence or absence of motives,
  • Determine the presence or absence of suicidal intent
  • Determine suicide risk factors—both mitigating and aggravating
  • Perform a post-mortem suicide risk assessment
  • Establish whether or not the deceased was a likely candidate for suicide.

How Is It Done?

  • All related records such as medical reports, psychiatric reports, police reports, and autopsy findings are reviewed.
  • Often, the death scene is inspected through photographs, or a visit to the scene is made, if necessary.
  • The deceased’s writings from diaries, journals, e-mails, as well as social media interactions are reviewed.
  • Interviews with family members, relatives, friends are also conducted.
  • An all-inclusive psychological autopsy can take anywhere between 20-50 hours or more to complete.

It is a big decision to conduct such a profile on a deceased person. We hope that it is done properly and can bring closure and justice to the memory of the deceased.

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