Suicide is the second leading cause of death (after accidental injuries) for people between 10 and 34 years old. It is the fourth leading cause of death for people between 35 and 54 years old. And the numbers have been on the rise in the last decade.
When an adoptee dies by suicide, there is a special poignancy and pain in the adoption community. We all have our own reasons for our reactions. As an adoptive parent, I cannot imagine the pain my children would have endured to die by suicide; nor can I imagine the pain of survivors.
Here’s the bigger lens on that poignancy and pain: The traditional and widely accepted adoption narrative is that adoption means a better life than a child would otherwise have had. That’s certainly the intent. “Better” is a relative term: better because of economics, education, safety, or what? That can be a contentious bit of defining.
When an adoptee dies by suicide, especially at a very young age, there is an extra layer of wondering. Adoption is supposed to mean a better, happier life: why would an adoptee kill himself? Adoptive parents are supposed to be the better option: what happened? (And of course, sometimes there was nothing that any parent or anyone else could have done to prevent the death.) How does an adoptee’s death by suicide affect the birth parents, who (we hope) placed their child legally and transparently, in the hope that the child would be better off?
Such sorrow. A loss like no other. No easy answers.
I recently heard about the death by suicide of a young Ethiopian adoptee. Upon reflection, I have edited this post to delete personal information. If I caused more pain, I deeply apologize.
I am hopeful that the rest of us will continue to learn about suicide, even as it is so deeply difficult to think about. Talk about it, especially if you have pre-teens or teens. Please learn, and help your family learn, about suicide prevention. About trauma. About depression. About how all that can sometimes play out in adoption.
Please learn also about the role of race in adoption, about how important it can be for adoptees to have racial mirrors, mentors, and role models. I get a lot of pushback about this, but I am convinced that adoptees raised in racial isolation—without others who look like them—suffer in terms of identity and otherwise, no matter how deeply loved they are by their adoptive family. I do not understand families who bring children from around the world and raise them in racial isolation. If the child had to move, maybe the family has to move too.
Learn from adult adoptees. Read the essays of Dear Adoption. Look through books written by and recommended by adoptees at AdopteeReading. Here’s a list of Best Adoptee Blogs. That’s just one list, and there are many other wonderful adoptee blogs. Twitter can connect you with an abundance of adoptee bloggers and writers. Read Karen Pickell’s Adoptee Lexicon, for one example, about the words we use during National Adoption Month (November, every year).
Most adoptees are resilient. The vast majority do not attempt or die by suicide. I do not want to pathologize adoptees or adoption. Nor do I want to minimize the very real and painful struggles some adoptees go through.
I’ll close this post with an article by a resilient adoptee who offers many valuable insights: “I’m Adopted, But I Won’t Be Celebrating National Adoption Month.” Thank you, Stephanie, for sharing your story so openly and powerfully.
May all those who leave this world by suicide rest in peace and in power. May their families find healing. May we all do better in this world.
Some Additional Resources:
One important takeaway: it is a myth that talking about suicide will plant the idea, or cause someone to attempt it. Take a look at It’s Time to Talk About it: A Family Guide For Youth Suicide Prevention. A quote: “Talking about suicide does not cause suicide. In fact, by asking questions, you may prevent suicide by showing the youth that you care and are there to help.”
Talking to kids about suicide is hard. Here’s a good resource about doing that, as well as about warning signs, about helping a child after a friend has died by suicide, about cyberbullying, and more: Talking To Your Kid About Suicide
Risk of Suicide in Adopted and Nonadopted Siblings This is the often-cited study by the American Academy of Pediatrics which showed that adoptees are four times more likely to attempt suicide (not die by suicide) than non-adoptees.
The Mental Health of U.S. Adolescents Adopted in Infancy
Healing Series: Suicide A podcast by the stellar AdopteesOn. The presenter is Melissa K. Nicholson.