The term “psychological autopsy” is exactly what it sounds like: a psychological profile to determine the mental state of someone who is already deceased. There are many reasons why a psychological profile may be conducted, with the most common one being to determine the cause or nature of death, whether it be by natural causes, suicide, homicide, or an accident.
A rather large amount of information must be collected in order to perform a psychological autopsy. Some of this information is personal information (any history of drug/alcohol abuse, known stresses, lifestyle, relationships, etc), biographical information (birth date, occupation, marital or relationship status), any secondary information (criminal record, family history), and information gathered by interviewing family members of the deceased. Once this information is gathered, forensic psychologists can begin to piece together the psychological autopsy.
This investigatory tool is not used as often as one might think, but it is still considered an important tool at an investigative team’s disposal, especially when combined with the other tools available to them. One reason why it may not be more commonly used is the question regarding its reliability and validity. There have also been questions as to the uniformity of the way investigators are trained in using this technique.
In my research, I found that psychological autopsies are performed most often on suicide bombers. This type of investigation is conducted to help get inside the minds of suicide bombers, and therefore, attempt to understand why they sacrifice their own lives in order to also take the lives of others. Investigators have been able to gather a significant amount of information on this particular population of people, both from family members of the bombers, and the would-be bombers themselves who happen to be apprehended before they have the chance to carry out their attacks.
As the fields of forensic and investigative psychology continue to develop, it’s possible this tool could become more mainstream than it has been in the past.
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