THE PSYCHOLOGY OF
An Investigative Assessment
By Vernon J. Geberth, M.S., M.P.S.
Former Commander, Bronx Homicide, NYPD
©1996 Vernon J. Geberth, Practical Homicide Investigation
LAW and ORDER, Vol. 44, No. 9, October 1996
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The rationale behind suicide, which is defined as the intentional taking of one's own life, can be as simple or as complex as life itself. The person who commits suicide may see his or her actions as some sort of solution to a severe physical or psychological dilemma. The Psychology of the suicide is rooted in depression. Therefore, the investigator must take into account the clinical considerations as well as the investigative facts.
Oftentimes, a police investigator will find a note indicating that the victim had suffered psychological torment, or was severely depressed. The note might even suggest that he or she believed that suicide was the last resort. Many of the suicide notes I have seen over the years indicate the acute depression of persons who have taken their lives.
Depression does not discriminate. It effects the young and old alike. According to Dr. Patrick Cachur of The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia, 30,906 persons committed suicide in 1990. The majority of the cases (approximately 6500) occurred in the age bracket of 25 to 34 years of age. There were 258 suicides among pre-teens ages 10 to 14 years old and there were 6 suicides of children between the ages of 5 and 9 years of age. Ms Sandy Smith, Public affairs Officer for The National Center for Health Statistics, Office of Data Processing recorded 29,760 suicides in 1992 placing suicide as the ninth leading cause of death. Homicide ranked number 10.
There are more suicides occurring in the 1990's according to the experts and the rate of suicide among pre-teens and the elderly has significantly increased. Teenage suicides have been described as epidemic in proportion to their representation within society.
Periodically, the nation's newspapers and television networks may cover this phenomenon by reporting a series of events including "Teenage Suicide Pacts." Ironically, the media attention often results in further teenage suicides. The course of action would be to seek out professional assistance and create programs within the school system to deal with this problem.
Depression: A Clinical Perspective
The primary motivation for suicide is depression. Depression is a mood disturbance which is characterized by feelings of sadness, despair, and discouragement resulting from and normally proportionate to some personal loss or tragedy. Depression can become an abnormal emotional state which exaggerates these feelings of sadness, despair, and discouragement out of proportion to reality.
There are four major clusters of depressive symptoms; emotional, cognitive, motivational and somatic. Each of these clusters of depressive symptoms impact both dependently and independently upon the depressed individual. In fact, as one set of clusters begins to affect the individual another impacts and reinforces the depressive effect. Eventually, the emotional and cognitive clusters effect the motivational symptoms causing what clinicians refer to as a "paralysis of the will" and/or psychomotor retardation. (psychomotor pertaining to or causing voluntary movements usually associated with neural activity) In severe depression the depressed person may actually experience a slowing down of his or her movements. They may even have trouble walking and talking. The depressed individual experiences physical changes which further exacerbate the depressive symptoms. The physical changes which occur are referred to as the somatic symptoms.
Sadness is the most conspicuous and widespread emotional symptom in depression. Depressed people may even articulate their depression by such statements as "I feel sad." This emotional symptom is felt worse in the morning usually as a result of not having been able to sleep. Feelings of anxiety are also present along with a loss of gratification and loss of interest. The loss of interest may start with work and extend into practically everything the individual does (hobbies, recreational activities, etc.) Finally, even biological functions such as eating and sex lose their appeal.
The term cognitive refers to the mental process characterized by knowing, thinking, learning and judging. It is an intellectual process by which a person perceives or comprehends. The depressed individual thinks or perceives of himself or herself in a very negative way. Their future is viewed with despair. The individual may feel that they have failed in some way or that they are the cause for their own problems. They believe that they are inferior, inadequate and incompetent. Their depressed cognitive functioning causes them to have intense feelings of low self esteem. This sows the seeds for eventual hopelessness and pessimism. The depressed individual actually believes that he or she is doomed and there is no way out.
These particular symptoms are first noticed by those who are close to the depressed person. Depressed persons generally have trouble "getting started." Most of us are able to function by getting up in the morning, go to work, interact with one another and engage in routine activities. The depressed individual is marked by passivity or lack of activity. This passivity and lack of normal response undermines the individual's ability to engage in important life functions and general socialization. In its extreme form there may even be a "paralysis of will" whereby the individual doesn't even feel like doing what is necessary for life such as attending to properly nourishment.
These are the biological manifestations of depression. They are perhaps the most insidious set of symptoms due to their impact. As depression worsens, every biological and psychological joy that makes life worth living is eroded. Loss of appetite, loss of interest in sex and sexual arousal, weight loss, and sleep disturbances lead to weakness and fatigue. Depressed individuals physically feel the depression. They are more susceptible to physical illness because the depression, as it becomes more severe, erodes the basic biological drives.
An individual begins to feel sad and sustains a restless sleep. He begins to feel sad in the morning and experiences a lack of interest in work (emotional symptoms). He then begins to question his ability to perform at work and starts to feel inadequate. This adds to the individual's anxiety and low self esteem (cognitive symptoms). He then discovers that he just can't get started in the morning and cannot bring himself to go to work and just loses interest in life (motivational symptoms). As the depression deepens, the individual loses his appetite, experiences weight loss which leads to weakness and fatigue. He then slips deeper and deeper into depression and becomes ill (somatic symptoms). The cycle of depressive symptoms will continue to evolve and the depression will worsen. At this point the individual is in dire need of assistance.
The investigator should be aware of three basic considerations to establish if a death is suicidal in nature.
- The presence of the weapon or means of death at the scene
- Injuries or wounds that are obviously self-inflicted, or could have been inflicted by the deceased
- The existence of a motive or intent on the part of the victim to take his or her own life
It should be noted that the final determination of suicide is made by the medical examiner/coroner after all the facts are evaluated. However, the investigation at the scene and an inquiry into the background of the deceased may indicate the presence of life-threatening behavior or activities that suggest suicidal intent. Of course, the medical examiner/coroner is supposed to avail him or herself of the input of the investigators, who were present at the scene and conducted the death investigation.
Motives and Intent
The manner of death may be important in determining suicidal intent. For example, people who hang themselves or jump to their deaths from fatal heights have certainly indicated an intention to take their lives. Similarly, deaths that involve a combination of methods (poisoning, shooting, slashing, inhaling gas, etc.) show an extreme desire to die.
There are numerous motives to consider in suicide cases. I have found from my own personal experience, however, that some people's motives never surface; the motive died with the deceased.
Suicide notes are direct communications indicating an intent to commit suicide. Letters and notes addressed to relatives and friends may be left at a death scene, which indicate severe depression and or anger. The notes are often coherent and legible. The notes may be instructional and/or admonishing.
Suicide notes oftentimes have mixed emotional content including "positive" and "negative" feelings. Many notes reveal what are referred to as "suicide ideations." These are the formation and conception of ideas in the mind of a person, which present suicide as a viable option. References to an "after life" or once again being with a loved one, or "looking down" are quite common.
The presence of a suicide note certainly suggests suicide. However, the investigator should conduct a further inquiry to ascertain whether or not the note is genuine. Was it written by the deceased? Was it written voluntarily?
The investigator should collect the note in a manner that will preserve any latent fingerprints. In any event, known writings of the deceased (exemplars) should always be collected for comparison. Remember; Even when you are sure that deceased has written the note and you are not anticipating doing a handwriting analysis you should still collect exemplars. This could become an issue at a later date and you will not have an opportunity to obtain such exemplars.
It is important to note that the deceased may have indicated an intent to commit suicide through activities and statements prior to death. The investigation should focus on any prior mental disease or defect. Was the deceased under any professional treatment? Consider obtaining this information via subpoena if necessary. The Therapist-Client relationship is terminated with the death of the client. Has the deceased ever attempted suicide in the past? Research has indicated that persons who have attempted suicide in the past are likely to repeat these behaviors under similar circumstances. Has anyone in the family ever committed suicide? There may be underlying pathological or psychological dynamics to consider. Any diaries, unmailed letters, or similar writings should be examined for information that may explain the death. Many suicide deaths are preceded by verbal threats of self-destruction and other indications of despondence. In some instances these threats are made to people whom the deceased respects or highly regards. In other instances sudden change in behavior is shown by subtle actions, such as increasing life insurance, giving away prized possessions, disregarding doctor's advice, or abuse of alcohol or drugs.
The Psychological Autopsy
The psychological autopsy is a collaborative procedure involving law enforcement and mental health experts who attempt to determine the state of mind of a person prior to the fatal act. By examining the victim's life-style and interviewing the victim's friends and relatives, they determine whether the death was accidental or involved suicide.
The psychology of suicide becomes an integral part of the professional investigation, and oftentimes the information developed on the deceased coupled with the contents of any notes provides the detective with a basis of inquiry into the event which ultimately allows for the proper classification of the death.
NOTE: This article is excerpted from PRACTICAL HOMICIDE INVESTIGATION: Tactics, Procedures, and Forensic Techniques. THIRD EDITION 1996, and therefore is considered the Copyright material of Vernon J. Geberth and CRC Press, Inc.
"More suicides are occurring in the 1990's and the rate among pre-teens and the elderly has increased."
The Centers for Disease Control, Atlanta, GA.
1Cachur, Patrick, Ph.D. The Centers for Disease Control. Atlanta, Georgia. Personal Interview. February 22, 1994.
2 Smith, Sandy. Public Affairs Officer, National Center for Health Statistics, Office of Data Processing. Personal Interview, February 22, 1994.
3Source: Rosenhan, David L. & Seligman, Martin. Abnormal Psychology Second Edition. New York: W.W.Norton & Co.,1989.
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