Understanding The Psychological Autopsy

David A Webb

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Whereas a medical autopsy is essentially a physical examination of the deceased, a psychological autopsy is essentially a mental state examination of the deceased.

There are a number of reasons why it might be appropriate to undertake a psychological autopsy, 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 psychological autopsy can help address this ambiguity and establish whether death was as a result of natural causes, suicide, accident or murder.


Within the context of a forensic investigation a psychological 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 psychological autopsy. 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).

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 and the 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 recognised that in general, the term psychological autopsy is not particularly well defined nor standardised 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 psychological autopsy as just one of the many investigative tools available within a cause of death investigation.

If you would like to find out more about psychological autopsies, you can do so by visiting http://www.all-about-forensic-psychology.com/psychological-autopsy.html

If you would like to read more information from the world of forensic psychology you can subscribe to my free newsletter. Regular features include an articles and links section, conference listings, news from the field and study guide.


Having worked as a lecturer in psychology in the UK, I recently moved to sunny Spain with my family, where I now work as a distance learning tutor and research dissertation supervisor.

Since 2000, I've been involved in collaborative research with teams of forensic scientists in the UK, US and Canada.

To find out more about the fascinating world of forensic psychology visit my website http://www.all-about-forensic-psychology.com/


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