Suicide: The Silent Killer – Interview with Adele Ryan McDowell, P.h.D.

step 12 magazine adele ryan mcdowell

by Roni Askey-Doran

Has your life been touched by suicide?

Yes, my mother was an alcoholic and very depressed. I remember asking her about the gashes on her wrist when I was a child. She allowed the doctor did it to her, but I knew she had attempted suicide.

I seemed always to be “at the right place at the right time.” In my freshman year of college, one of my dorm mates attempted suicide and I sat with her all night holding the bloodied razor blade. Another time, one of the women in another office attempted suicide and I was asked to help. In college, I volunteered at the first paraprofessional suicide hotline in the country and was able to save many lives.

As a psychologist, how did you move into the area of suicide and its aftermath?

Given the nature of my work (substance, sexual, physical and emotional abuse) suicidal thoughts and actions have always been a part of the discussion. Every childhood sexual abuse survivor I have ever worked with has dealt with suicidality. It makes sense given the horror, terror and betrayal a child goes through with that kind of trauma. Trauma and/or grief—and therefore, suicidality—has been at the heart and soul of most of my work.

What do you think are the most common factors that lead people to suicidal thoughts?

We know a family history of addiction, mental illness, violence and suicide along with a firearm in the home are risk factors for suicide. Depression is the strongest risk factor for suicide; deep, intractable, dark-holed depression offers no options or possibilities. It is a tight, cramped, airless space. Individuals feel stuck, profoundly tired, deeply detached and disconnected. They hurt all over. Nothing makes sense. They feel there is no point. “Why should I live?”

How do you think we can fight against the stigma of depression, mental illness and suicide?

Awareness, education and compassion, instead of judgment, is the only appropriate response to suicide.

With increasing numbers of deaths being attributed to suicide, do you think suicide become an epidemic?

Yes, it already is. From young to old and across every socio-economic strata, suicide reaches every nook and cranny of our planet. According to the World Health Organization, globally, there is, on average, one suicide every 40 seconds. In the US, the average is one suicide every 13 minutes.

Do you think social factors are to blame for suicide, for example, bullying, racism, sexism, etc.?

Yes, anytime we see “the other” as the enemy, different, or threatening we create separation. The woundedness of that separation causes people to lash out and respond in cruel and inhumane ways. The recipients of such often-relentless bashing lose their sense of connection with the world and with themselves. The pain is so huge that suicide becomes the answer to alleviate the trauma and misery.

Are there ways to detect when someone we love may be contemplating suicide?

Listen if someone talks about being suicidal or makes off-hand threats about suicide, death or dying. Suicidal loved ones often will express their feelings, even in a sarcastic or seemingly joking tone. You might hear, “You’ll be sorry when I am dead and gone.” Or they may write poetry or lyrics with dark and self-destructive thoughts.

They are preoccupied with death, dying, or suicide. Suicidal individuals frequently research ways and means to take their lives. Or they might stockpile medications, secure a firearm, or procure poison. Further, a suicidal person may begin to wrap up their life by making funeral arrangements, giving possessions away, and finalizing legal documents to get their affairs in order.

It has been said that “We don’t commit suicide because we want to die. We just want the pain to stop.” How do we best help loved ones who suffer from invisible pain?

Pain in its myriad forms is the primary catalyst for suicide. There are two ways to help stop the pain. 1. Remind your loved ones to feed their soul. The soul is the animating life force within each of us. We need regular does of beauty, nature, quiet, and music. Feeding our soul makes us feel alive. 2. Compassion increases connection and understanding. Compassion does a side-run past violence and cruelty. Honor the power of your heart.

24 hour, toll-free hotline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255) (English and Spanish)

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