Suicide Notes: What Do They Tell You?

Suicide notes give a voice to the human suffering behind a silenced death.
Suicide Notes: What Do They Tell You?

Last update: 10 November, 2021

When a death occurs in traumatic or ambiguous circumstances, the presence of a note written by the victim can provide important information about the event. In fact, the analysis of suicide notes forms part of the process of a psychological autopsy. This is a thorough study conducted by professionals who reconstruct deaths that occur due to suicide.

Suicide is among the top ten causes of death, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). At least 1,900 people are thought to commit suicide every day. Thousands more attempt it. Furthermore, it tends to be irrespective of geography, culture, ethnicity, religion, and socioeconomic position. It’s abundantly clear that this global problem needs attention.

In a  world where everyone struggles to survive whatever the cost, how could one judge those people who decide to die? No one can judge. Each person knows the extent of their own suffering or the total absence of meaning in their lives.”

 -Paulo Coelho-

A depressed woman.

What’s a psychological autopsy?

Suicide remains a taboo in society today. In fact, there’s always a great deal of shame and guilt that surround these kinds of deaths.

Suicide is the leading cause of unnatural death in the population as a whole. In addition, it’s often ambiguous. For this reason, when the deceased has left a note, it often serves to clarify certain points. This is where psychological autopsy comes into play. It’s a process that differentiates suicide from other types of death, such as murder or simulated suicide used to cover up a murder.

Psychological autopsy aims to develop a vital reconstruction of the victim. The process includes reconstructing the act of suicide via interviews with relatives of the deceased. The goal is to uncover how the event actually occurred. A psychological autopsy should answer three questions:

  • Why did they do it? It explores the motivations for the deceased to commit suicide.
  • When and how did they die? It determines why the death occurred at that specific time. Furthermore, what were the psychopathological circumstances surrounding the suicide?
  • How did they die? If there are any doubts, it attempts to clarify them.

The goals of a psychological autopsy

In order for the psychological autopsy to meet its objectives, it needs to explore certain factors. Among these will be the suicidal risk of the individual, the level of aggression they demonstrated towards both themselves and others, their lifestyle, and their personality and mental state. In addition, whether there was any particular conflict in their life and whether there were any warning signs that they were in danger of committing suicide. Furthermore, if the person has left a suicide note this will be studied. That’s because it’ll probably provide important personal information for the completion of the analysis.

Psychological autopsy is both valid and reliable. It’s obtained via a process whereby professionals carry out standardized forensic procedures. It’s also completely objective and doesn’t involve any other type of clinical or emotional relationship with any of those involved.

This type of autopsy can be used as expert evidence if requested by any interested party, or if required at a judicial hearing. However, while the report contains a great deal of information and clarification, it still isn’t irrefutable evidence of what actually happened. It’s an indicative and probabilistic conclusion as to what happened, based on meticulously collected and studied data.

“What  matters, therefore, isn’t the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.”

-Viktor Frankl-

A depressed woman.

Types of suicide notes

The suicide note can help clarify what pushed the victim towards their death. It should be remembered that a note in which the deceased explains their motives signifies that they’d premeditated and planned the suicide act. As a matter of fact, when people commit suicide on impulse, they don’t usually leave any notes.

When a person leaves a note behind saying goodbye, it’s because they’ve been thinking for a while about what to say.

Suicide notes usually provide information in three specific areas:

  • The person’s mental state.
  • Their circumstances.
  • Their intentions (by committing suicide).

No two suicide notes are ever the same. In addition, they’re all extremely personal, which is why they’re very valuable for the analysis. They might be written on various forms of material. For example, paper, skin, mirrors, walls, etc. The same goes for the writing implement. This might be a pen, pencil, lipstick, blood, spray paint, etc. Furthermore, every little detail needs to be taken into account. Because these details could end up completely altering certain nuances of the act or the person’s intentions.

Studies suggest that suicide notes tend to be addressed in order of importance to siblings, police, partner, friends, parents, and other family members. The contents of the notes usually refer to the reasons for their actions. These might be illness, money problems, unemployment, loneliness, old age, loss of a loved one, shame, etc.

Messages in suicide notes

Messages contained in suicide notes can usually be grouped into these categories:

  • Farewell. They say goodbye and thank you to a loved one for something. They try to reassure their close friends, so they don’t feel guilty about the suicide.
  • Instructions. They leave instructions for family members, lawyers, or police officers as to what they want to be done with their belongings. Or what they want to be done with their body.
  • Accusations. They try to blame others for what they’ve done. These messages are often full of anger or distress.
  • Request for forgiveness. They apologize for the damage they’ve caused in their life. In addition, they apologize for the suffering they’ve caused by their decision to commit suicide.
  • Justification. They explain why they made this decision. For example, reasons of morality, honor, religion, unable to go on, etc.

A cry for help

In the majority of suicides, the victim has made the decision under circumstances of the most unbearable suffering. In fact, it’s an end chosen by someone who can find no other way out of their situation or who just can’t relieve their psychological pain. Consequently, they feel there’s no other escape.

If you think you know someone at risk of suicide, you must talk to them about it. You’ll then be in a position to help them. Silence never prevents suicide. For this reason, you should always be on the lookout for any signs of visible distress. This way, you’ll be able to offer them support and refer them for professional help. Professionals who’ll be able to help them safely recover.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Acinas, M., Robles, I. y Peláez-Fernández, M. (2015). Notas suicida y autopsia psicológica: Aspectos comportamentales asociados. Actas Españolas de Psiquiatría, 43(3), 69-79.
  • López-Castroman, J., Bustos-Mendez, P., Pérez-Fominaya, M. et al. (2015). Código 100: un estudio sobre la conducta suicida en lugares públicos. Actas Españolas de Psiquiatra, 43(3), 142-148. 
  • Pérez Barrero, S. (1999). El suicidio, comportamiento y prevención. Revista Cubana de Medicina General Integral. ISSN 1561-3038
  • Tejedor, C., Díaz, A., Faus G., Pérez, V. y Solà, I. (2011). Resultados del programa de prevención de la conducta suicida. Actas Españolas de Psiquiatría, 39(5), 280-287. 

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.