Recording Suicide

Verdicts do not always give suicide as the cause of death, even when the death was known to be self-inflicted.

  • Many suicides may end up classified as 'accidental' or 'undetermined.'
  • Single-car fatalities where there are no skid marks are almost always deemed  'accidents,' when they may be suicides.
  • Some institutions may class a death as suicide in order to avoid a homicide enquiry.
  • Some suicides are covered up where an insurance policy doesn't pay out in the event of suicide.
  • The number of suicide attempts and parasuicide actions (acts of deliberate self-harm) are also under-reported.
It is difficult to get accurate statistics on deaths by suicide.

An article, 'The limitations of official suicide statistics', published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, explored some of the problems associated with current procedures for determining suicide.

A sample of 242 deaths which were known to have been self-inflicted, was followed up through the coroners' courts where causes of death were legally established. It was found that verdicts other than suicide were returned on half of the men, and on one-quarter of the women. 1

Under-recognition is even commoner for parasuicide (deliberate self-harm).2

Estimates on under-reporting of suicide as the cause of death range from 1% to 300%. There are several reasons for under-reporting:
  • social stigma
  • difficulty in determination of death
  • insurance concerns
  • religious concerns

In Suicide and Attempted Suicide, author Geo Stone points out that families or family physicians may hide evidence due to the stigma of suicide. Many deaths which were suicides, he says, have been certified as natural or accidental deaths by a physician, either through error, misinformation, or deliberate

In some cases, a coroner may cite suicide only in deaths where a suicide note was found, and suicide notes are only found in around one quarter of known suicides.

According to Stone, there are lots of ambiguous situations, some of which are suicides, but which almost always end up classified as 'accidental' or 'undetermined': the single-car 'accident' with no skid marks; the 'fall' off the night ferry; the 'stumble' in front of the train; the 'inadvertent' overdose; the gun-cleaning 'mishap'.

Stone claims that "Compared to the 'accidental' or 'undetermined' motive categories, there is a much larger number of deaths officially classified as 'ill-defined and unknown causes of mortality,' where even the actual cause of death is uncertain, and some of which are undoubtedly suicides."

On the other side of the ledger, Stone asserts that some doubtful cases are classified as suicides. He points out that where this is more likely to happen in institutions such as prisons, hospitals, religious orders, or the military. His case for this claim is that such institutions find a suicide 'verdict' less embarrassing and troublesome than an investigation of a homicide.3

There may be cover-ups by beneficiaries of insurance policies where a suicide may mean there would be no pay-out.

In previous centuries, Christians who were known to have committed suicide, or who were suspected of having done so, were not permitted burial in 'consecrated' ground. In many cases, grieving relatives, tried to make the suicide look like an accident to avoid the shame of such an act becoming known.

The number of suicide attempts is also subject to dispute. Based on a range of studies, there are probably between 10-20 attempts for every suicide, or roughly 300,000-600,000 attempts per year in the U.S. Yet more than half of those who try suicide, kill themselves on their first try.

A Story That Illustrates Difficulties
Classifying a death as suicide or some other cause is often problematic.

At the 1994 annual awards dinner given by the American Association For Forensic Science, AAFS president Don Harper Mills astounded his audience in San Diego with the legal complications of a bizarre death. Here's the story:

BIZARRE DEATH STORY

On 23 March 1994, the Medical Examiner viewed the body of Ronal Opus, and concluded that he had died from a shotgun wound to the head. The deceased had left a note indicating his despondency.

Now he had actually jumped from the top of a 10-storey building, intending to commit suicide. As he fell past the ninth floor, his life was interrupted by a shotgun blast through a window, which killed him  instantly.

Neither the shooter nor the deceased was aware that a safety net had been erected at the eighth floor level to protect some window washers, and that Opus would not have been able to complete his suicide anyway because of this.

Ordinarily, Dr Mills continued, a person who sets out to commit suicide ultimately succeeds, even though the mechanism might not be what he intended. That Opus was shot on his way to certain death nine storeys below probably would not have changed his mode of death from suicide to homicide, but the fact that his suicidal attempt would not have been successful caused the medical examiner to feel that he had homicide on his hands.

The room on the ninth floor whence the shotgun blast emanated was occupied by an elderly man and his wife. They were arguing, and he was threatening her with a shotgun. He was so upset that when he pulled the trigger, he completely missed his wife and pellets went through the window, striking Mr Opus.

When one intends to kill Subject A but kills Subject B in the attempt, one is guilty of the murder of Subject A.

When confronted with this charge, both the old man and his wife were adamant that neither knew the shotgun was loaded. The old man said it was his longstanding habit to threaten his wife with the unloaded shotgun. He had no intention to murder her and therefore the killing of Mr Opus appeared to be an accident, that is, the gun had been accidentally loaded.

Continuing investigation turned up a witness who saw the old couple's son loading the shotgun approximately six weeks prior to that fatal incident. It transpired that the old lady had cut off her son's financial support and the son, knowing his father's propensity to use the shotgun threateningly, loaded the gun with the expectation that his father would shoot his mother.

The case now becomes one of murder on the part of the son for the death of Ronald Opus.

There was an exquisite twist. Further investigation revealed that the son, one Ronald Opus, had become increasingly despondent over the failure of his attempt to engineer his mother's murder. This led him to jump off the ten-storey building on March 23, only to be killed by a shotgun blast through the ninth-storey window.

The Medical Examiner closed the case as a suicide.

References:
1. O'Donnell. I, & Farmer, R. (1995). The limitations of official suicide statistics. British Journal of Psychiatry, 166, 458-461.
2.
Dickstra 1993
3. www.a1b2c3.com