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Psychological autopsy aims to reconstruct deaths by suicide

Dr. Anne Kelly, professor of behavioral sciences and psychology at Dakota Wesleyan University, is also a psychological autopsy investigator. (Matt Gade / Republic)

MITCHELL, S.D. — Why would a person choose suicide?

By reconstructing a person's history, Mitchell resident Anne Kelly works toward answering that seemingly impossible question.

As a trained psychological autopsy investigator, Kelly attempts to establish what is unique about the suicide and the mental state of the victim. In addition to being a valuable tool for research on completed suicides, it also provides closure for people close to the deceased.

"You are going to places that can be very uncomfortable," Kelly said. "It is your job to reconstruct the mental state of someone who died by suicide, so in a way, you have to feel that. There is a role of empathic involvement where you put yourself in that position."

Her job is unique nationally. She was certified in 2013 by the American Association of Suicidology, and is the lone psychological autopsy investigator in South Dakota.

Locally, she's better known as professor of behavioral sciences and psychology at Dakota Wesleyan University.

Since becoming certified, she has investigated three cases in Mitchell and more than a dozen cases nationally.

Following a suicide, sometimes months later, Kelly's investigative process includes interviewing the next-closest of kin. Kelly explained initial interviews can last anywhere between two to eight hours.

"It gives people the opportunity to talk about the person in a fuller context," Kelly said. "We talk at length about who this person was before they died. They are beautiful stories."

In addition to family members of the decedent, Kelly interviews others who knew the person, such as teachers, friends or co-workers. After Kelly conducts all the interviews and reviews a person's medical and criminal files, she puts together her final findings into a three-page report.

"What we are doing is reconstructing a story because everyone has a side to a story," Kelly said. "We are trying to get an accurate picture based on the information provided."

There are three main questions Kelly tries to address: Why suicide? Why this method? And does this suicide make sense?

According to the American Association of Suicidology, in 2015 over 40,000 deaths by suicide were reported. In South Dakota, 173 deaths by suicide were reported, making the state rank seventh nationally per capita for suicides.

Kelly said that while there is research available on individuals who attempt suicide, information on why a person completes a suicide is not as well researched. Information provided from each case helps determine certain risk factors for individuals who died by suicide.

"If we really want to know what is going to bring somebody to complete a suicide, we need to study that group," Kelly said.

Kelly explained the typical timeframe to start work on a case is two to three months after the death by suicide. Each case is completed within three to four weeks, but it is dependant on how quickly Kelly can have access to the medical records. Kelly receives cases from contract work through a national agency or individuals who request services.

"Often when someone dies by suicide that person is now defined by their death," Kelly said. "This helps contextualize the death for the loved ones on why did this happen."