What kind of death is this?

The second brother from the animation of the Deathly Hallows from Harry Potter
The second brother from the animation of the Deathly Hallows from Harry Potter

Doing some more research on suicide tonight (my first post about it was back in January, you can read it here)… this time with a focus on how to tell the difference forensically between a suicide and, well, not a suicide.

First: the method (jumping off a building)

According to a really interesting site I found called ‘Lost all Hope’:

The most important factor in suicide by jumping is height. Stone2 states that jumping from 150 feet (46 metres) or higher on land, and 250 feet (76 metres) or more on water, is 95% to 98% fatal. 150 feet/46 metres, equates to roughly 10 to 15 stories in a building, depending on the height of one story. 250 feet is the height of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

The LAH author got his information from a book by Geo Stone called Attempted Suicide: Methods and Consequences, and you can read more about that here:

So interestingly, for a 95% chance that you will actually be killed by your attempt, you need to fall 10 to 15 stories from a building.

Second: the body (what is the injury pattern)

Without getting into too much gruesome detail, I looked around for some data that would help me with the physical forensic evidence from a suicide-by-jumping and found this article from the US National Library of Medicine.

The most common injuries were fractures of the thoracic and lumbar spine (83.0%) with a preference for the thoracolumbar junction. Fracture of the lower limbs occurred in 45%. The most frequent injuries were fractures of the os calcis (64.4%) and the ankle joint (26.6%). Twenty-five percent of all patients suffered from fractures in the upper limbs with a preference for the distal radius (56.6%) and the elbow (44.0%).

The article goes on to say that only 27% of the people they studied for their report died from head injuries… which of course begs the question if that didn’t kill them, what did?

Another interesting article about this kind of data is: The Study of Pattern of Injuries in Fatal Cases of fall from height

Third: the after-effects (legally and religiously) of suicide

I’m not a member of a christian religion, but I believe in 1930s London, most of the population was, so I am going to make this character a Catholic. Catholics seem to have very clear beliefs when it comes to suicide, so if this death is ruled a suicide, the character will not be allowed to have a burial with a priest at his church.

Legally, I cannot find evidence in British Law that changes how the heirs to inherit from someone who committed suicide VS someone who died by some other cause. What is clear that suicide and natural causes will fast-track the fulfillment of the will, while any suspicion of foul play will delay everything as the truth is worked out.

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Writing about suicide

Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf: ‘One day she is “sunk fathoms deep”, another trying to keep afloat in a “great lake of melancholy”.’ Photograph: EO Hoppé/Corbis

In J-school (I graduated from the UWO Masters program in Journalism) we spent a few lectures on covering suicides. It was one of those subjects that caused a lot of discussion inside the classroom and even more so after we left it. The basic question of how seriously to take the idea that covering a suicide gave the public the idea that they too could do ‘it,’ was one that continued to be debated in the various newsrooms I was hired in to.

I am cognizant of that [essentially] unanswered question as I start writing this latest casebook for Portia Adams. I am in no way ‘covering’ a suicide since this is fiction, but the basics of the case Portia is working on revolves around suicide and more specifically, a critical look at the psychological profile of a suicidal person.

An article from the Poynter Institute written a decade ago remains one of the best on the subject if you are interested in reading more, but this is the quote that I always keep in mind when this subject comes up (which thank fully, is not that often, but still happens more than it should):

Mental illness is almost always present in a case of suicide. To report on suicide without discussing the role of mental illness is like reporting on a tornado without mentioning the underlying weather conditions. Tornados don’t whip up out of nowhere, and neither does suicide.

Seeing as Portia suffers from some form of bipolar disorder as I suspect her grandfather did, this seems like a case I can use to delve into some of her issues.

Just because context helps when writing, Statistics Canada and Health Canada obviously follow this subject very closely, and their latest numbers are:

Suicide is a major cause of premature and preventable death. It is estimated, that in 2009 alone, there were about 100,000 years of potential life lost to Canadians under the age of 75 as a result of suicides.

Research shows that mental illness is the most important risk factor for suicide; and that more than 90% of people who commit suicide have a mental or addictive disorder.1,2 Depression is the most common illness among those who die from suicide, with approximately 60% suffering from this condition.

Obviously one of my next steps is to do some research on suicide rates in London in the 1930s and what kind of stigma was attached to mental illness at the time. Also, I will need to know what kind of support people had from their medical community.

By the 1930s, Europe had dropped well into the Great Depression and therefore training for medical staff would have been harder to come by, and the support for institutions would have also dried up as money was refocused on the majority of the public who needed basic survival aid.

If anyone has suggestions on articles or contacts please let me know in the comments below? Thanks!