“Understanding Why Adoptees Are At Higher Risk For Suicide”

Update: The article is no longer posted on Forefront’s webpage, so I have removed the link. The article is available in full at the bottom of this post.


Talking about suicide is hard and uncomfortable. Talking about it in connection with adoption–which often has much joy but is more complex than people realize–is challenging. And we need to talk, and keep sharing information and resources.

I am pleased to share with you my article “Understanding Why Adoptees Are At Higher Risk For Suicide,” published today by Forefront, a University of Washington collaboration of the UW School of Social Work, UW Communication, UW School of Nursing, and UW College of Education.

My three main points in the article are these:

Adoption is a trauma.

Adoptees often don’t know their medical histories, which may include depression and other illnesses.

Adoptees don’t want to upset their adoptive parents with concerns about depression or what could be seen as ingratitude.

I know people I love more than words can say who have considered. and attempted, suicide. I do not presume to speak specifically for them in my writing, because their stories are theirs to tell–or not.  Because of my experiences, and because of hearing about the suicides (or attempts) of adoptees, I have felt compelled to speak out. I hope other voices, especially those of adoptees themselves, will come forward as well and be welcomed, even as we struggle together.

This is a clarion call to adoption agencies and organizations to make suicide awareness and prevention–especially as it relates to adoptees–a fundamental part of their training and adoption-related services. I mean no disrespect to birth/first mothers, fathers, and family members, as they also have genuine struggles. My focus here, however, was on adoptees.  I have heard just this week about 2 12-year-olds, boys, Ethiopian adoptees, in different states, who committed suicide in August. I heard recently from an adoptee of the Baby Scoop Era, now in her 50’s, who has struggled with suicidal thoughts for decades.

September is National Suicide Prevention Month. September 10 is World Suicide Prevention Day. Please read, learn, share, and speak out.

My thanks to Forefront for publishing my article.

May we all find healing and hope, and reasons to live.



Understanding Why Adoptees Are At Higher Risk For Suicide

Originally published September 2015 by Forefront. Copyright: Maureen McCauley

Most people view adoption as a happy, even blessed, event. A child finds a new family: nothing but joy, right? Adoption can be happy, a blessing, joyful. For some adoptees, though, adoption is complex, and can be filled with as much loss as love.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, adoptees are four times more likely to attempt suicide than non-adoptees. It’s here in Pediatrics. Even more startling is 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. Of those 56, 47 were adoptees.

Why are adoptees at such risk for suicide? Here are a few reasons.

Adoption is a trauma.

This is a hard idea to accept, perhaps, but let’s look at some facts. Much research acknowledges that separation from one’s mother is trauma. Children separated from their mothers for whatever reasons, including for adoption, sometimes struggle with trust and attachment as a result of separation. Even children placed for adoption as infants can feel the impact of separation from their original mothers.

In the case where the separation is the result of neglect, abuse, or death, the trauma is intensified. Neglect and abuse are often the reasons children are placed for adoption. The American Academy of Pediatrics wrote a report called “Helping Foster and Adoptive Families Cope with Trauma.” It’s a helpful guide, to be shared with pediatricians and other caregivers.

I’ve known many adoptive families where the parents love their children and the children love their parents—but still the children struggle with the fundamental losses connected with adoption. We are hardwired to need and depend on our mothers for survival. If there is an end to that basic relationship, children can suffer—even if they are infants, even if there is a new (loving, overjoyed) mother. So it’s not only neglect or abuse that contribute to trauma, though please don’t minimize those challenges.

The grief and trauma may not emerge all at once, or at a particular time or age, or in an obvious way. Some adoptees may have minimal struggles. Some struggle for a lifetime. Being open to talking about the losses in adoption, as well as the joys, is vital.

Adoptees often don’t know their medical histories, which might include depression and other illnesses.

Many adoptees, adopted in the US or internationally, do not know their own medical histories. In the US, some seven states allow adopted persons to access their original birth certificates. A handful more allow partial or restricted access. This can mean that adoptees have extremely limited access to their medical histories, so that neither they nor their adoptive parents have a full picture of their genetic and/or inherited conditions. International adoptees often have no medical histories available to them as well.

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.

Increasing numbers of adoptees are locating birth/first families through Internet and other searches. Many are using DNA testing. While those can be positive developments to finding out if depression or other conditions are present, sometimes that information is unavailable or comes too late. As a community, we need to insist that adoptees have full and accurate information about their own histories.

Adoptees don’t want to upset their adoptive parents with concerns about depression or what could be seen as ingratitude.

Adoptees are often expected to be happy and grateful. That can be a heavy burden at times. They don’t want to seem ungrateful, though the issue of gratitude in adoption is complex. When adoptees experience depression, especially related to adoption, they can be reluctant to tell their adoptive parents. They can act out in many ways, and often all this occurs during the “normal” turbulence of adolescence. Some of the acting out can be the result of known or unknown trauma, or of unexpressed depression.

As an adoptive parent, I believe that adoption is all about gains and losses, joy and grief, a balance that shifts often throughout life. I also believe if we took a deep breath and viewed adoption as trauma—trauma that can be acknowledged and treated, trauma that some people may experience to a small or large degree—we would be better able to help adopted children heal and grow healthy, sooner than later.

Some adoptees heal just fine from the trauma of separation. Some struggle with trust issues throughout their lives, and have a hard time beginning or ending relationships. Some are challenged with depression, anxiety, and more. I want to stress this point: there is a spectrum of resilience among adopted people. The spectrum does not negate the need for awareness of suicide prevention. Adoptive families need to be aware of the potential difficulties, to be open to thoughtful communication, and to obtain effective, timely services.

I’ve focused here on adoptees, and I want to acknowledge first/birth parents in these struggles as well. Trauma and mental illness are often (not always) challenges for them, and they deserve attention and services as well. Recognizing that adoption is a trauma, understanding that trauma manifests differently in different people and over time, and allocating resources for treatment and support: that would be a positive step toward healing.

15 thoughts on ““Understanding Why Adoptees Are At Higher Risk For Suicide”

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  4. Reblogged this on Letters to Ms. Feverfew and commented:

    It’s National Suicide Prevention Week 2015 here in the US and this is difficult reading for me. Why?

    Because I unknowingly put my daughter at a four-fold risk of suicide. What mother in their right mind would do that???? How is THAT supposed to be a blessing, dear LDS church? What about increased risk for suicide is “about love”?

    This adoption truth would have been a game changer for me. I would have never relinquished her for adoption. I was promised she would grow up whole and happy because she had the magic elixir of Mormondom – two parents who were sealed in the temple. It was supposed to be the secret sauce that protected her depression and low self-esteem, among many other things.

    But I was lied to.

    And she suffered.

    So yes, this is difficult, but necessary reading.

      • Hi! The post was taken down on Forefront’s site. It is available in full on this (my) blog post. I hope you have a chance to read it, and I would be happy to hear your thoughts. Thanks.

  5. not playing it down but have there been comparisons against children raised in out pf home care and/or been subjected to family abuse and violence. Some time we naturally look at our own kind but we should also look at others who may have had a similar back ground. As a aside a study fund that musicians were four times more likely to suicide than the rest of the population as well.

  6. Reblogged this on The adopted ones blog and commented:

    Please read this post, then go to the full article linked, read that, then read the study (you can even open the full study instead of just reading the abstract). We can’t pretend this isn’t real, please don’t question methodologies of the study in an attempt to downplay it (all adoptees in the study were placed in the adoptive homes under the age of two, 87% of the international adoptees were adopted from Korea, the domestic adoptees also placed under the age of two)…

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