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Whereas a medical autopsy is essentially a physical examination of the deceased, a psychological autopsy (P.A) is essentially a mental state examination of the deceased.
There are a number of reasons why it might be appropriate to undertake a P.A, however, the most common is to assist in determining nature of death.
Estimates suggest that in up to 20% of cases presented to a medical examiner/coroner the precise mode of death is unclear. A P.A can help address this ambiguity and establish whether death was as a result of natural causes, suicide, accident or murder.
Psychological Autopsy Methodology
Within the context of a forensic investigation a psych autopsy is employed as a data collection tool. The most common source being interview data obtained from the family and friends of the deceased. Obtaining the medical history of the deceased is also a central component of the P.A. Interviewing the doctor of the deceased and/or examining medical records is, therefore another important data collection source.
The nature of the information collected would usually include the following:
Biographical information (age, marital status, occupation).
personal information (relationships, lifestyle, alcohol/drug use, sources of stress).
Secondary information (family history, police records, diaries).
Before moving on, it's important to note that as with most data collection protocols conducted within a psychological framework, different methodological approaches exist. A useful way to think of this is in terms of means to an end.
The end is by and large the same i.e. it is hoped that collectively, information obtained will as Berman & Litman (1993) describe result in a:
'Postdictive analysis yielding an opinion giving a logical understanding of the relationship between the deceased andthe events and behaviors that preceded the death'.
The means by which you reach this end can, however, differ slightly, for example, the clinical approach Vs the equivocal death analysis approach favored by FBI.
While there is certainly evidence to support the validity of psychological autopsies per se e.g. Brent et al (1993), it also needs to be recognized that in general, the term psychological autopsy is not particularly well defined nor standardized for operational use.
One major concern is that there does not appear to be systematic guidelines in place regarding training and best practice. Another, is that depending on the nature of the case under review, the person carrying out the psychological autopsy may not have the depth of forensic knowledge required to help inform the cause of death e.g. blood splatter analysis.
It is for these reasons that it is probably sensible to view the psych autopsy as just one of the many investigative tools available within a cause of death investigation.
Broader Application of The Psychological Autopsy
One of the most notable areas in which psychological autopsies have been employed, is the attempt to understand the state of mind of suicide bombers. The pioneer of this research is Ariel Merari from Tel Aviv University, who interviewed both the friends and family of suicide bombers, as well as would be bombers who were apprehended before they could carry out the attack.
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Just as the FBI did in the 1970's, The British police are planning to interview serial killers in an attempt to establish patterns of behavior. Part of this strategy will involve the use of psychological autopsies.
To find out more about this, you can watch a video news report by clicking on the link below.
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