What Does Psychological Autopsy Mean?

Psychological autopsy is a process that has been used as part of forensic research. Its purpose is to create possible causes of suicide if it really was suicide, as well as to find out what kind of psychological patterns were involved.
What does psychological autopsy mean?

Psychological autopsy is a forensic method that seeks to find out or clarify the causes of suicide. In some cases, experts use it to make sure a person’s death was really suicidal. However, this is a relatively new discipline, as it only began to be used systematically in the 21st century.

Psychological autopsy was a term developed in the 1950s in the works of Shneidman and Farberow. Edwin S. Shneidman was an American clinical psychologist who studied suicides and death-related phenomena. He co-founded the Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Center with Norman Farberow and Robert Litman in 1958.

However, the concept of psychological autopsy has been referred to in the United States since the 1920s. After an era known as the Great Depression, a wave of suicides occurred in the United States. Such an epidemic caught the attention of many researchers and they even tried to find common causes for it. However, Shneidman and Farberow were the first to establish the concept.

Psychological autopsy is also paperwork.

Psychological autopsy

Experts rebuild the indirect and retrospective life and personality of a person who has died in a psychological autopsy . It is an investigative process that seeks to recreate the circumstances and causes that led to a person committing suicide.

Overall, the study had two main objectives. The first was of a forensic nature and the second an epidemiological nature. Psychological autopsy is ordered as part of a criminal investigation and is a complementary tool to medical autopsy. Experts almost always use it in cases where the cause of death is unclear.

From an epidemiological perspective, this tool seeks to gather significant information in order to create behavioral gestures, circumstances, motivations, and so on. All of this information helps to create common risk factors aimed at preventing or avoiding new suicides from the event.

This tool also helps to a small extent for other purposes, such as verifying the legal correctness of acts committed before death, such as signing documents. 

Other methods assess whether mistakes have been made in people undergoing medical or psychological treatment, which can be used to construct, among other things, psychological profiles and criminological classes.

Research tools

There are three main methods used in such an autopsy: the investigation of the crime scene, the collection of psychological fingerprints, and the interviewing of the victim’s relatives.

  • A crime scene investigation provides important clues about the whole case. The method chosen, the order of the objects around the body, and other similar elements can reveal important information.
  • The collection of psychological fingerprints consists of the collection of letters, messages, diaries and other documents or information that can help either to establish the psychological profile of the victim or to determine the circumstances that led to his or her death.
  • Interviewing people close to the victim also serves to gather information about the personality or motivation that led to the suicide. This is one of the most controversial methods of psychological autopsy, as the various factors that can lead to suicide are very difficult to create.
Psychological autopsy includes interviews.


There are several different protocols involved in performing a psychological autopsy. However, one of the most common is the MAPI model created by Dr. Teresita García Pérez. He is a Cuban doctor whose methods have been proven to be very practical and effective. The word MAPI refers to four basic perspectives that experts look at. They are:

  • Mental. At this stage, experts analyze, among other things, skills and cognitive abilities such as judgment, intelligence, memory, and attentiveness.
  • Emotionally affective. Experts look at signs of possible mood disorders, such as depression.
  • Psychosocial. This perspective evaluates the victim’s interpersonal circles throughout his or her life.
  • Interpersonal. In this last step, experts find out how the person identified with their immediate environment.

This protocol indicates that  work should be done at the place of death first. There, psychological fingerprints, signs, and indications of suicidal conditions can be sought.

Investigators then conduct structural interviews with three people close to the victim, using 60 different perspectives or factors. These interviews take place 1-6 months after death.

Finally, an interdisciplinary analysis is performed involving a psychologist, a physician, and at least one criminologist. The expert then compiles a probabilistic report. In this report, he creates a cause of death based on the NASH code: natural, Accidental, suicide, homicide. He then marks the possible causes of death.

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