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Ask the Mental Health Expert Archives 2001-2004

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Psychological Autopsy

Q. I am preparing a suicide management protocol, and need to include a section on psychological autopsy... post completed suicide. I have located several references to study results using psychological autopsy but none with a description of the actual psychological autopsy protocol. Can you provide or point me in the right direction?

A. Part of the difficulty you are having may stem from the fact that the term psychological autopsy is not well-defined or standardized. In Massachusetts, for example, the courts have not used the term psychological autopsy, though the issue of the mental state of a deceased person is often litigated. As DS LaFon puts it, "Although in use since 1958, the term 'psychological autopsy' and its constituent elements have yet to achieve either consensual validation or operational standardization. This calls into question issues of content validity and reliability when psychological autopsies are used in the field." (Int J Emerg Ment Health 1999;1:183-88).

The article does go on to explore the "Equivocal Death Psychological Autopsy" and to offer suggestions on the elements of such a document. Other authors have taken the view that the psychological autopsy should be merely one component of post-suicide management (JD Little, Aust N Z J Psychiatry 1992;26:162-7). Others have utilized the CSID-the Critical Incident Stress Debriefing-after suicides and other traumas (C. Cooper, J Psychosoc Nurs Ment Health Serv 1995;33:21-25).

For more information, I suggest you contact the Clinician Survivor Task Force through the American Association of Suicidology office. Phone (202) 237-2280; E-Mail: ajkulp@suicidology.org or use the web site: www.suicidology.org.

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February 2002

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