Suicide and Adoption: We Need to Stop Whispering

Update: For resources about adoption-related suicide awareness and prevention, here is information.

Just this morning, as I was getting ready to post this, I read on my Facebook feed about a 28-year-old Korean adoptee who died by suicide two days ago. I did not know her. She was the same age as my oldest son, and she had a daughter about the age of my granddaughter. May she rest in peace.

I am holding in my heart a 20-something-year-old adoptee, adopted with a biological sibling into a huge adoptive family (more than 25 kids). He is overwhelmed all the time these days, as a result of things he has done and has had done to him. He wants to go home, though he’s not sure any longer where “home” is. He is in great need of mental health services, and is intently resisting help. He is teetering on the edge of suicide.

Yes, I know most adoptees do well. But this one is struggling, and it appears to be the result of events after he was adopted. His adoptive family has abandoned him.

My two most shared blog posts (shared over 1000 times on Facebook) are “Does ‘Adoption’ Really Equal ‘Trauma’?” and “Fisseha Sol Samuel: Irreplaceably Marvelous.” Both deal with a hard side of life: trauma and suicide. The first post says, yes, adoption is trauma, and there is a spectrum of response to it. The second post was written last October following the suicide of an Ethiopian adoptee who had previously exhibited no symptoms of depression, and whose death was likely (we will never know for sure) the result of a sudden, triggering, traumatizing event in which he was overwhelmed and impulsive. Fisseha’s mother, Melissa Faye Green, has written several powerful posts as she sorts through her son’s death.

Here is an excerpt from my post about Fisseha:

“There is sobering research that says that adoptees are four times more likely to attempt suicide. It’s here in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Not lightweight stuff, and even more startling in that the mean age of the 1000 participants was about 14. Out of the total group, which included adoptees and biological children, 56 had attempted suicide; 47 of those were adoptees.”

I am holding in my heart a 14-year-old Eastern European adoptee, who is too familiar with drugs and sex, who is loved deeply by her adoptive parents, who is in various therapies, who cuts herself and threatens suicide often. She can be a bubbly, sweet teen, and also a deeply frightened and frightening out-of-control mystery.

Yes, her struggle may not be the result of being adopted, but rather of what happened to her before she was adopted. She is struggling, and those who love her are deeply worried.

No one enjoys thinking of adoption as a trauma. No one likes to talk about suicide. And, I know: most adoptees–most people generally–don’t consider or die by suicide.

That said, let’s start thinking and talking about the link among adoption, trauma, and suicide. Let’s insist that suicide awareness be a part of pre-adoptive parent training classes. Let’s demand that anyone who claims “adoption competency” in their therapeutic practice is extremely knowledgeable about suicide. Let’s actively and shamelessly share resources to prevent suicide. Let’s request workshops like “The Presence of Suicide in Adoption” as a topic at adoption-related conferences. We need to stop whispering about suicide and adoption, and to speak about it with clarity and without fear.

I am holding in my heart a 16-year-old adoptee from India, beloved by her adoptive family, mentored by an adult Indian adoptee, raised in Minnesotan suburbs, who killed herself about a month ago.

Yes, she struggled, and also was offered and received help. She may be at peace now, though all those left behind are filled with sorrow and questions.

These 3 adoptees are among the reasons that we must talk about the role of trauma and suicide in adoption.

A few weeks ago, I was at the national conference of the American Adoption Congress. The main legislative advocacy effort of the AAC has historically been access to original birth certificates, a means of allowing adopted persons to know who they are, a basic human and civil right.

What is the connection between suicide and the AAC’s legislative efforts? Well, there may be a genetic component to the likelihood of suicide. Access to one’s medical and mental health history–too often denied to adopted persons–could be a matter of life and death. Knowing about a history of depression or other mental illnesses in one’s family could mean proactive treatment and interventions. It is yet another reason that closed records are unfair, untenable, and wrong.

Here are links to two medical journal articles:

Genetic and Familial Environmental Effects on Suicide – An Adoption Study of Siblings

Genetics of Suicide: An Overview

Many adoptees are adopted into families where the adoptive parents are well off financially, have attended college, and are in highly regarded professions.The adopted children go to excellent schools and often have wonderful opportunities. Still. Take a look at “Best, Brightest–And Saddest?”, in which Frank Bruni reflects on the “suicide contagion” among teens in Palo Alto and elsewhere who are under pressure to succeed academically in highly competitive situations. The article cites a CDC report that says 17 percent of American high school students considered suicide in 2012. Eight percent said they’d attempted it.

Suicide, of course, feeds on trauma and depression, and does not discriminate based on economics and education. While the “suicide cluster” among high schoolers in “epicenters of overachievement” is discussed in the New York Times’ article above, there has also been a similar tragedy–which has not made national press–among young people in Seattle. Three young men, ages 18, 18, and 20, who were students at the Seattle Interagency Academy (SIA), died by suicide, within a 4 month period in the last year. SIA works with at-risk youth, who have struggling families and who are often homeless or on probation. Listen to an excellent podcast with the SIA principal here.

Coincidentally, there was a string of 7 suicides by adolescents on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota around the same time. No one is quite sure why this is happening, though bullying and grim prospects for the future seem to be significant.

I don’t know if any of these young people had spent time in foster care or were adopted. Certainly, though, their life paths echoed those of many young people whose families are struggling mightily, and those struggles are often the reasons that children land in foster care and/or adoption. Racism and micro-aggressions can significantly affect the mental health of transracial adoptees; I wrote about that reality here. Even adoptees placed as infants in same-race families can struggle with loss, grief, identity, and feelings of not belonging. It’s clear that many of these challenges manifest in adolescence.

This is all daunting tough stuff. I am seeking a balance: to acknowledge suicide prevention as a goal about which we can all speak in the adoption community, not over-reacting, being pro-active, and supporting each other. My next post on this subject will give some resources.

IMG_8455

Light Through Trees, Forest near Lake Langano, Ethiopia © Maureen McCauley Evans

37 thoughts on “Suicide and Adoption: We Need to Stop Whispering

  1. Pingback: Ethiopian Adoptee Gabe Proctor, NCAA Champ, Died By Suicide | Light of Day Stories

  2. Pingback: Remembering Hana Alemu Today, and Reflecting on the Murders and Suicides of Adoptees | Light of Day Stories

  3. My son’s father took his own life and was adopted. He looked his entire life for his birth family as. being adopted was a BIG deal for him despite having great adopted parents. I started to journal our healing process and it turned into a book. I knew I couldn’t tell his story without trying to find his birth family. My son did DNA testing and we did find his father’s birth mother. She died less than a year after the son she gave up for adoption but suffered from the same crippling depression. I found an entire history of it through his birth mother’s family. Sad but answered a ton of questions. She was 24 when she gave him up but her family deemed her mentally incapable of having a child. So genetics played a part but not knowing where he came from was a big void for him that probably exacerbated his issues. His adopted mother told me she wanted him to come with a clean slate so he could just be her baby but not knowing the medical history is also a big problem! Though I guess when there is a history of depression/mental illness no one wants to advertise that fact and it’s the adoptee who suffers.

  4. Beautiful post ❤

    I am sorry for your loss as well.

    I am adopted. I live daily with no sense of belonging in this world. Love is terrifying. When people say family is forever I obviously believe that isn’t true. I hate when people would distinguish my adoptive mother from my biological/birth one growing up and say “real mother”. Whatever that even means. Questions about one of the most traumatic events in one’s life isn’t welcoming, thats literally asking about the details of a major loss. Making friendships are difficult. They are challenging to maintain and simultaneously frightening to even create due to fear of loss. So are romantic relationships.

    When I lose someone in the literal or emotional sense, the world shatters, disintegrates and burns to a crisp and I feel like I am losing my mother all over again. Adoption is equally, and sometimes more traumatizing. I also feel like the birthmothers and father don’t get enough credit for their loss, and no one talks about how the adoptive mother feels about the birthmother and vice versa very often. It isn’t magical, or lovely. It is like existing as a piece of broken glass amongst a world of steel. We have already been destroyed to pieces. No matter how strong, something is still missing, still hurting, still stolen, still aching, always looking for someone to fill that void, that emptiness. I have caught myself trying to have as many moms and mentors as possible ever since preschool. They come, they go, I am devastated. The tape replays. In my experience as an adoptee, I try to leave before I am left. Despite being right many times, there have been instances when I have made the mistake of leaving when the other person wasn’t planning on leaving yet, or wasn’t leaving at all.

    Many people on a regular level understand adoption and abandonment….but it is so much more than that. It must be difficult to imagine what it is like. It feels a lot like death. Except comparable to the death of a parent. In addition to the analogy of the gravity of the death of a parent, it is that and rejection all rolled into one feeling that feels like it is inherently the adoptees fault. When I cried as a kid, I wanted my birth mom but she never came. Not once was she there when I needed her. When I was proud of myself, or improved on a skill, she still wasn’t there. Not for even a second. When a baby is in the room, everyone is stoked to see it or coddle it, but I start to cringe most of the time or feel horribly sad inside because here is this baby in the room that is kept, loved, wanted, fed, and nurtured-what a privilege. When a baby cries, I ask myself what didd I do that was so wrong? Could I have done anything differently. This obnoxious baby cry with its poop smell is still kept. What could I possibly have done so wrong. I always thought and still think it is my fault she left.

    In some cases the mom couldn’t take care of the child for financial, age, health, addiction, or plenty of other reasons innocent and non innocent reasons included. In some cases, the birthmother tried. In my case, she didn’t try all that hard. It is vital to remember every birthmother is different just like every other kind of mother in this world is different. Giving up your child because you could not provide what he/she/they needed doesn’t make you terrible. Intentional neglect and abuse are terrible, but not a decision that you believe might help in the long run. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t feel terrible for all parties involved. I feel like as an adoptee, trying in even the slightest sense even if you were broke or struggling with something counts for something on an emotional level. In my opinion, all that matters is that the birth mother knows their truth because it has to be a heart wrenching experience as well.

    As for how it impacted me?- I developed anorexia nervosa(tube fed on and off for years-all because I was starved by my birthmother before my adoption and suddenly started to starve myself in my adulthood and realized it felt like my birth mom was there or closer in some psychologically haphazard way. I of course continued to do this for a very long time), depression, and anxiety are still present as a result of my adoption and palpable ache for love. I am doing alright now, but yes, suicide has crossed my mind many times. It feels like the answer at many times. Like if “I am not loved here and don’t have a sense of belonging on this earth, then maybe if spirits are real I might be loved there, or at least all this pain, the nightmare I wake up to of not having my mother will finally be over”

    Dear adoptees, reading Secret life of Bees the book has helped me a lot(there are some sexual trauma stuff in it, but overall, Lily finds love in other places. And its not ideal, but she finds it in other figures that provide love. She starts to be there for herself too. Moreover, yoga, meditation, music, and art have been a huge help for me-but everyone is different in how they cope I guess. Sometimes neutral music is better than the mourning stuff.

    Lastly, I would like to underline that all feelings on the abandonment, adoption spectrum are valid. Do not deny those feelings of pain. It will literally eat you alive and destroy you to the core. Do not seek validation about your pain from invalidating people. It will only worsen your pain. I have been there and done that. Seek understanding and empathy and not sympathy from those who support you. You don’t need an audience or a therapist always, and if you need a therapist I find it so helpful. Just one kind listening ear. Nothing will replace the loss of a mother, but some things may help make life manageable. I attached a link of a Brene Brown “On Empathy” video on the difference between empathy vs. sympathy. It helps a lot on understanding others and being understood.

    Hugs.

  5. It’s so moving to read about all of your experiences of courage and loss. I am an adopted therapist and almost all of the adopted teens and young adults who come in to see me were or are suicidal. It needs to be talked about. I’m offering a webinar, “Understanding and Preventing Suicide in Adoptees,” to begin this conversation. Half of the proceeds will benefit the Korean-American Adoptee Network Conference. http://adoptiontherapyma.com

  6. My adopted brother (we were both adopted) fell to suicide at the same age. My suspicions of adoption issues contributing to the cause of death circled his body like vultures, but never landed. I know they’re part of it, or, more likely, the root cause, but I still can’t settle on what it was about adoption that made his life unlivable. I wrote about it on a post at Lost Daughters (http://www.thelostdaughters.com/2015/07/we-were-all-good-adoptees-once.html). It was my first time writing about my brother’s suicide. I know it won’t be my last. I suspect that I will be reading and writing and researching this topic until I can sort it out.

    • I am so sorry for your loss. Thank you for writing about it, and being open to understanding or sorting out what in some ways is impossible to understand. It takes courage to talk about. We need compassion, hope, and these hard conversations. Thank you.

  7. I am also particularly concerned when other confounding factors are toppling the adopted that further increase the risk of suicide. My own heart holds a special little boy who is adopted, most likely a future mover and shaker of the LGBT community, a challenged learner but gifted with a huge personality, and who so desperately needs to know he is loved and valued most of his waking moments. And he is (-:

    • He sounds like a gem. Wishing you the best in the future.

      And you’re right–other factors no doubt play a role. Race, gender identity, learning differences, physical and other challenges: add them on to adoption and it can be a powerful mix. Being willing to talk about those issues, and about trauma, and being able to obtain support and resources can help. We are in this as a community, and we need to support each other on the journey. Thanks so much for your comment.

  8. You raise some important issues. The daughter I lost to adoption took her life when she was 27. She was taken from her foster mother, father, two loving sisters, and a brother. They loved her and wanted to adopt her. She was yanked from their home when she was a year old, walking, talking and calling her foster mother Mommy: Her second trauma, and in my estimation worse than being taken from me at birth..

    She was adopted into a family who had 3 biological sons. They wanted “a girl.” She was pressured to be a Barbie Doll, a Jewish American Princess, and she was pressured to compete scholastically with the 3 boys.

    While she was in college her adoptive father died. he was a nice guy and I think she was daddy’s girl. Trauma number three. Mother was an ice queen and she met and married and sold the family home. Alicia never completed college. A couple of credits short…and when my daughter got out of college she had no home to come to. her drinking got worse – DUIs. I found out after she died that she had been in treatment for eating disorders.

    I found her when she was a teen and offered family medical history to her adoptive mother. She didn’t want it! Alicia inherited alcoholism from her father and she inherited a family history of eating disorders and suicide from my side.

    https://www.facebook.com/alicia.hirsch.7?fref=ts

    • BTW – when I put up her FB memorial page,many of her college friends found it and were SHOCKED to learn that she had died and how she died. They all said she was so full of life and always happy. A party girl. Only one former roommate knew she was troubled and drank too much, and knew that her adoptive mother totally didn’t get it.

      Her death was very hard on my other daughter who also struggled with eating disorders.

      The “better life” wasn’t so much so and I have to live with never knowing if I hadn’t been pressured to let her go if she’d still be alive.

      Adoption sucks, It causes trauma and should be a LAST RESORT.

      Mirah Riben

    • I am so sorry to hear about your daughter’s death. As an adoptee who grew up in a nice adoptive family, I can tell you that adoptees’ first loss, that of our natural mother, is traumatic on a level that we don’t consciously access; and yet, it affects every cell in our body. Each subsequent loss brings up a pain that builds on that first loss. My therapist told me the other day, as we were working on my own losses, that every adoptee she’s ever worked with has problems with fearing we will disappoint our adoptive family and will be returned, sort of like a gift that is not wanted. Until the truth about adoption comes out, and people stop believing the myth that adoption is some fabulous way to “build a family,” adoptees will continue to suffer as we increase in number.

  9. Dark Heart

    shadowy tendrils entwine my brain.
    Infusing it with anger, sadness and pain.
    Dark tendrils weave from my heart to my brain,
    Constricting me choking me with toxic shame.
    Fruitlessley searching and full of self blame.
    Wandering and wondering from whence I came.
    Alas dark heart so full of fear.
    Pushing all others away that dare to draw near.
    Please Dark heart learn to let go.
    Let the love in allow us to grow.
    Please dark heart embrace the pain,
    So I can can learn to live again.

    (c) jane hunt

  10. My history was 5 placements, 3 different names, and one failed adoption by the time I was 19 months old…and while I knew I was adopted I did not have this information. I was the compliant child and I was adopted into a family that raised us to be strong, healthy and independent. ( 3of the 4 children were adopted) Just what I needed given my beginning. So shortly after my 15th birthday my boyfriend broke up with me. And I was plunged into emotional agony…On my own I discovered cutting and it provided some relief…but I spiraled into despair, and depression followed by pregnancy (1 week after my 15th birthday) followed by Abortion becoming legal in August 1969 so I was offered one and accepted, only it was a second trimester abortion so it was like a C-section where they cut me open…that was all followed by deepening depression (untreated) and I ran away from home…and went through the gang bangs and intravenous drug use…my feeling at that point was if this is what living is all about (excruciating pain… then dieing was fine and speed… was definitely the way to go) all that mess and fortunately my parents hung in and they were not giving up…I remember calling home and my mom asking me to please come home and me sobbing Can I still…and she said yes you can always come home. As a family this put us all into therapy…at the Hink’s Center in Toronto (1970) At no time that I am aware of was it ever suggested that Adoption just might be an issue.
    It was a theater program called Ontario Youth Theater I auditioned and got accepted and that gave me back the desire to live.
    Fortunately I really did learn that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem so I wasn’t ever suicidal during any of the other times my life imploded. But I have been depressed my whole life. Most of my life I’ve been untreated but I read every self help book I got my hands on and I’ve managed to get therapy (covered by OHIP if you are poor you cannot afford to pay for it) and discovered I’ve come a long way in understanding and then forgiving myself. This topic is absolutely essential and having access to a responsible and adoption knowledgeable therapist (covered by OHIP) should be the right of every child in foster care and adoption .
    I’ve never written this out before…I believe it is appropriate
    thanks

    • Thank you very much for your strength in telling your story. Wow. You have such wisdom and power here, gleaned from deep suffering. I am sure your words will help others, and I am deeply grateful that you wrote. Your truth is valuable, and your voice is essential. This is a gift to so many people. I hope you continue to write, whether here or elsewhere. Wishing you ongoing healing, energy, and bravery. Thank you.

  11. Reblogged this on The Life Of Von and commented:

    “This is all daunting tough stuff. I am seeking a balance: to acknowledge suicide prevention as a goal about which we can all speak in the adoption community, not over-reacting, being pro-active, and supporting each other.”

  12. Pingback: Resources Around Trauma and Suicide in Adoption | Light of Day Stories

  13. As an adoptive Mom of a 25 year old daughter from Romania, I can say I totally agree. She has struggled since about age 11, lots of different therapists. Finally at age 23 she was correctly diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). If you don’t know 70% of those with BPD try to commit suicide, 11% are successful. Scary stats. Two interesting situations came from this. 1. Luckily she lives in Seattle where the best therapy for BPD was started by Marsha Linaha, herself a BPD sufferer. My daughter has been in Dialectical Behavior Therapy for 2 1/2 years and it has helped immensely as she was on the verge of being suicidal. 2. As parents, we were part of a group for loved ones with BPD for both support and to learn skills to support our loved ones. We were a group of 12 families. Five of the 12 families had adopted children diagnosed with BPD. That is in incredibly high statistic. Just as it took us years to get the correct diagnosis, I believe there are many adoptees who are not correctly diagnosed, but possibly BPD would be the diagnosis. Most mental health professionals don’t want to label teens with this disorder. I can understand why. There are no meds to take for this, but with commitment and determination help is out there in the form of DBT (Dialecticle Behavior Therapy).

    • What an incredible journey. So glad to hear that an appropriate diagnosis and a solid treatment program have been so helpful for your daughter. Thank you for your comments about borderline personality disorder and Dialectical Behavior Therapy. I also live in Seattle, and have heard great things about DBT as a cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy for BPD and other illnesses. It is considered effective for use with chronically suicidal people, as well as for those struggling with substance abuse, depression, PTSD, and eating disorders. I am going to write more about DBT in my follow up post to this one. For those interested, info about DBT is available at behavioral tech.org; you can also google Dr. Marsha Linehan.

      Again, thank you. Wishing you, your daughter, and family all the best.

      • Thank you SO much for posting, both of you.

        My best friend’s teen (which is itself reductive, “my godchild who was legally renamed after me in her adoption ceremony following the hearing when she was 4” is more accurate) seems to have BDP. Everything is so hard for her, and getting a diagnosis has been a struggle. I’m forwarding the details on the family engagement and support to her parents right now.

        We are all so afraid for her. If she can build skills to navigate the rest of adolescence, she’s going to light up the world. Such great potential. Thank you.

  14. we lost a very wonderful, brilliant, funny friend 2 years ago at age almost 50. The adoption, rejection issues, and unknown trauma/neglect in the orphanage had played a big part of his depression for decades. Of my adult adoptee friends, I’d say 75% or higher had troubles or acted-out, 2 (I knew) of were suicidal. In my group of friends, it appeared the most closely race-matched & well-to-do were the most troubled and more likely to act. I don’t know the reasons for this, maybe they had too much time and comfort to dwell on rejection issues? Maybe they could NOT be distracted about a race-mismatch with their adoptive parents? Maybe there’s a personality-type mismatch with the adoptees & adoptive parents. I’ve heard of mismatches in endorphin-needs/”thrill seeking”/impulsivity behavior between adoptive parents (too good at delayed self-gratification) and adoptees (bio-children of immediate self-gratifiers) –that could lead to poor self-esteem and self-blame thoughts.
    I know the too-much-time & comfort, and impulsivity was my friend’s issue. His adoptive mother was even a clinical psychologist, they all saw this trainwreck coming, but was unable to avert it. I only wish he’d been institutionalized when they knew he was a danger to himself and gotten Electro-convulsive therapy.

  15. AMEN! We need to be yelling about this.
    I know more mothers who have lost their children to suicide in the adoption community, than out in the non adopted population. We JUST had another birthmother find out her lost at age 16 just passed earlier this month as well and suicide seems to be the cause. She wasn’t even notified of his passing.
    And then, as you say, it’s researched FACT. I have four separate studies linked here that speak of how adoptees are at a higher risk. http://www.adoptionbirthmothers.com/the-myth-of-the-happy-adoptee/

    So yes.. count me in with this: “let’s start thinking and talking about the link among adoption, trauma, and suicide. Let’s insist that suicide awareness be a part of pre-adoptive parent training classes. Let’s demand that anyone who claims “adoption competency” in their therapeutic practice is extremely knowledgeable about suicide. Let’s actively and shamelessly share resources to prevent suicide. Let’s request workshops like “The Presence of Suicide in Adoption” as a topic at adoption-related conferences.”

    • Friend of mine from the Army died three years ago. Adoptee. I’m sorely tempted to request his death record because his family doesn’t know me… I want to know what happened. Even though it’s not really my business. I’m afraid that if he did harm himself that his nearest and dearest just dismissed it as more of his dysfunctionality when it could actually be residual effects from his adoption. AND he was Lakota and born 10 years before ICWA. I know he was delving into his adoption in the few years before his death and had already had his assumptions about his mother turned completely upside-down.

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