Runner’s World on Gabe Proctor: Ethiopian Adoptee, Championship Runner, Suicide

Gabe Proctor with his siblings Joanna and Samuel, in 2000 and in 2013

 

Gabe Proctor lived a short, loving, and complex life. Adopted from Ethiopia around age 10 after his mother died, he grew up in Vermont, went to college in Kansas and Colorado, became a championship runner, worked hard to support his family in Ethiopia, and died by suicide at this past May at age 27.

Sarah Lorge Butler has written a thoughtful profile of Gabe in Runner’s World: After Runner’s Suicide, Anguish and A Search for Answers. She spoke extensively with Gabe’s family, as well as his coaches and running partners. The sorrow and loss are palpable, as are the questions that can never be answered.

I am among those quoted in the article, and I have written many times about suicide and adoption. There are simply no clearcut answers. According to the Runner’s World article,  ” ‘In understanding mental health and adoption, researchers now think about a combination of risk factors,’ said Maria Kroupina, Ph.D., associate professor of pediatrics in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Minnesota. Adoption itself is one risk factor. Others include prenatal stress to the child’s mother. Genetics, or family history of mental illness. Stress in early childhood, from scarcity of resources or abuse or neglect. The loss of a parent.

It’s a process for adopted children and the adults in their lives to navigate these issues from the past. ‘Children and young adults need ongoing help,’ she said. “No health care providers would put a child with asthma or a heart condition in a family and say, ‘Please figure it out.'”

Gabe’s family remembers him as a talented, thoughtful, loving son and brother. His coaches remember him as incredibly hard-working and determined to push himself to achieve his best.

From the article: “During his best year in 2014, he had the fifth-fastest half marathon time in the U.S., but his heart is what people remember. Proctor especially looked out for those who had trouble fitting in or seemed burdened in other ways.”

Like many adoptees, especially those adopted at older ages and with siblings, Gabe never forgot his Ethiopian connections. “Gabe made four trips to Ethiopia over the years, and as his running career progressed, he realized his talent could help his relatives in Ethiopia. As a professional, his singular goal was to use his running to support his family. Gabe had a shoe deal from Asics, and he lived simply, never owning a car, for example. Samuel says before Gabe’s death, his brother had built houses that his Ethiopian family could use for rental income.”

Gabe Proctor in Ethiopia, July 2006

I give credit to his adoptive parents, Caryl and Jim Proctor, for sharing their son’s story. They and others who loved Gabe urge “family and friends of people who are struggling with depression to confront it head on.” Jim Proctor “implores parents to pay attention: ‘Accept that the warning signs are warning signs,’ he said…’Don’t ignore it.'”

There are many resources available to help with suicide prevention; I have listed many of them in this post: Resources Around Trauma and Suicide in Adoption. Whether or not adoption is involved, we should all be aware of resources for depression, anxiety, and suicide ideation. Yes, these are tough topics. And they need to see the light of day, because that’s the only way we can help each other.

‘Gabe was adamant about this,’ his younger brother, Samuel, said. ‘Always treat people the absolute best you can, because you don’t know what they’re dealing with.’

 

 

The Suicide Prevention Lifeline, available 24/7, is 800-273-8255. You can also text 741741, the crisis text line available 24/7, and text with a trained crisis counselor.

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.

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

Reflections on the American Adoption Congress Conference: Educate, Advocate, Legislate

I was in Cambridge, MA, recently for the national conference of the American Adoption Congress. Most of the people at the AAC conference looked like me, a white woman. I could easily have been mistaken for an adoptee from the Baby Scoop Era, or for a mother who placed a child during that time. Those two descriptions would fit most of the people there: adoptees or first/birth mothers. As an adoptive parent, I was in the minority. As a middle-aged white woman, I was in the majority.

The AAC has been around since the late 1970’s. Its legislative advocacy has been focused on open records/access to original birth certificates for adoptees. Some AAC members have been working on that goal for decades, and I am in awe of their dedication and determination. Certainly there has been major progress (see Ohio, most recently), though work remains to be done.

I first attended an AAC conference some 20 years ago, in Virginia, when Bill Pierce of the National Council For Adoption was still alive and intensely fighting open records. (This link is to all Bill’s NCFA files on closed records and more, papers which reside now at the University of Minnesota.) Bastard Nation was emerging. Activism then did not have the current (and relative) ease of social media.

Social media has of course changed everything in terms of advocacy, for open records and for many other important causes. One takeaway for me from the AAC conference was this: While opening adoption records and increasing access to original birth certificates remains a priority for AAC, the fight in state legislatures is slowly becoming moot. That’s not because more people are understanding the need for open records. It’s because Facebook is connecting adoptees and birth parents, and because old opponents of open records are retiring or dying. Also, technology around DNA is reducing the need for legislative access–people are finding their previously unknown family members via  databases (genetic genealogy) such as Family Tree DNA, 23andme, and ancestry.com.

Well.

That changes the landscape in a very big way, and suggests that the AAC conference slogan of “Educate, Advocate, Legislate” must open to new possibilities. The fight for open records on the state level remains, and is incredibly important. However, other issues in adoption are vital as well, though I heard about them mostly in conversations between sessions:

  • Rehoming of adopted children (US and international)
  • Retroactive citizenship for international adoptees
  • The adoption tax credit
  • Overhaul of the home study evaluation process
  • Support and resources for transracial adoptees, whether from the US or elsewhere
  • Support and resources for first/birth/original mothers and fathers
  • Support and resources for late discovery adoptees (I met three at the AAC conference, who had found out they were adopted at 18, 35, and 43 years of age.)

All of these are important, and deserve the time and attention of organizations like AAC and others. For what it’s worth, I don’t see these issues explicitly on the schedule for the June conference of the National Council For Adoption and the Joint Council on International Children’s Services. Hmm.

Beyond the policy and legislative actions, there are at least two additional related and complex issues must be addressed, openly and boldly, by all adoption-related organizations: racial realities in adoption and suicide in adoption.

Racial Realities in Adoption

The AAC appears to be making a solid effort at acknowledging transracial adoptees and interracial adoptive families. They have two transracial adoptees on their Board of Directors, Susan Harris O’Connor and Krista Woods. Two of the four keynote speakers were people of color: Rhonda Roorda and Rev. Dr. Nicholas Cooper-Lewter. One of the documentaries shown was You Have His Eyes, the story of transracial adoptee Chris Wilson. April Dinwoodie of the Donaldson Institute on Adoption presented a workshop called “What My White Parents Didn’t Know and Why I Turned Out Okay Anyway.” Mi Ok Bruining, a Korean adoptee, presented a workshop on “The Poetry of International Adoption.” Katherine Kim and Noel Cross facilitated a workshop on “Mixed Race Adoptees;” both are mixed race Korean adoptees. The Adoption Roundtable” featured 4 transracial adoptees. (The audience for this group was unfortunately quite small, though I get it. The potential audience might have been transracial adoptees and white adoptive parents. Neither group was significant in the conference attendees.)

The panel that got a large audience and generated a lot of conversation was “Lost Daughters: Diverse Narratives Within the Collective Adoptee Voice.” This panel included 10 of the women from the online writing collective Lost Daughters, and included same race and transracial infant adoptees, a Korean adoptee, an Ethiopian adoptee raised in Canada, a foster care transracial adoptee, and a Native American adoptee. Given that most of the AAC conference attendees are female adoptees and first mothers, it’s not surprising that the Lost Daughters panel was well-attended.

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The Lost Daughters panel at the 2015 American Adoption Congress conference

 

One of the panelists, Amira Rose, wrote a powerful article on the Lost Daughters site reflecting on her experience at the AAC conference. Her post, “Sight Unseen: Navigating Adoption Spaces as an Adoptee of Color,” is insightful, and invites thoughtful reflection.

My sense is that AAC is moving toward inclusion of adoptees and first mothers of color, and I hope they do so. The challenge is bringing people of color into a group with few people of color: who wants to be the “other,” the “only,” the token? (See Amira’s article above.) I recognize that it is my white privilege that suggests this be done, and that it could be. As the white adoptive parent of 4 black adoptees, I know there is much to be learned from adoptees and birth/first parents of color. We all need to be talking together about realities of race and racism.

Suicide in Adoption

This was not a topic of a panel or keynote, but it needs to be, and at every adoption-related conference. At the AAC conference, an adult adoptee from India talked about having been a mentor to a 16-year-old Indian adoptee who had recently committed suicide. Wrenching and heartbreaking. It’s so tempting to pause, provide sympathy, and then move on. And we can’t do that anymore. Trauma is part of adoption; depression is a reality for many people. Genetics can provide some clues, but too often adoptees do not know their own medical history. Adolescence for adoptees can be difficult in the best circumstances; add the intensity of current climate of bullying and racism, and it’s a dangerous world. The American Academy of Pediatrics published a report saying that adoptees are more likely to commit suicide than non-adoptees. I have known and heard of far too many adoptees, especially in their teens, who have considered, attempted, and committed suicide.

Educate, Advocate, Legislate. The AAC conference provided me with much food for thought (this is just a morsel), plus the joy of meeting old and new friends. I have little doubt that young adopted adults will lead the way in changing adoption policy, and I am heartened that first/birth parents are less marginalized as well. We adoptive parents need to be involved and engaged as well. And we all have to be unafraid of the hard conversations.