“Adoptees, Mental Health, and Suicide Awareness”

The role of suicide and mental health in adoption are topics most people don’t want to hear about. As an adoptive parent, I’ve been writing and speaking out about it for years, and I know how painful and difficult it can be. That said, we need to talk and learn, and work toward suicide prevention and better mental health.

This Saturday September 12, Adoption Mosaic will host a panel called “Adoptees, Mental Health, and Suicide Awareness: Breaking the Silence, Breaking the Stigma, as part of their “We The Experts” series. The experts are adoptees, who share their lived experiences, as well as professional expertise. If as an adoptive parent you ever wished you could be a fly on the wall for discussions like this one, here’s your chance to listen to and learn from adoptees. I want to give credit and respect to the adoptees who will participate: they will be helping so many others with their courage and experience.

The focus on the “We the Experts” events is adoptees. Please share this event (and others in the We The Expert series) with adopted adults and others who may be interested. Non-adopted folx are welcome to attend: as listeners, as learners, as supporters of adoptees. Not as experts, not as authorities, not as dominating voices.

As an adoptive parent, I learned a lot about adoption as my kids were growing up. My sons were babies from the US when they were adopted; my twin daughters were 6 years old when they arrived from Ethiopia. All my children identify as Black; their adoptive dad and I are White. My children are all now adults in their 30’s. 

Over the years, we have had a lot of conversations about adoption. My four children’s perspectives on adoption vary greatly, around wanting or needing to search for birth family, around how they react to friends asking about their birth parents or why they were adopted, around trust, grief, Mother’s Day, and fairness. As children, they participated in adoptee camps and workshops, more or less willingly depending on age and mood. They dealt with memories or the lack of them, with baby photos or lack of them, with family tree assignments (never lacked them). As adults, they have settled into their identities, on their own terms, subject to change.

Questions and issues around adoption don’t end magically when adoptees turn 18. Children grow up. They seek out partners and relationships, and adoption can influence both. They have children themselves, who are not adopted and whose parents were. Those biological connections are powerful. As a mom, a grandmother, and the parent of adoptees, I continue to see the impact of adoption, and to learn.

One of the best ways I’ve been learning recently is through Adoption Mosaic’s “We the Experts” series. Depending on the topic, we get to listen to adopted adults talk about their experiences as parents, and how being adopted has affected their relationships with their children. We can learn why or why they chose to search for their birth family, how they have retained or rejected the religion they grew up in, what their relationships with their fathers have been like, and most recently, how they view DNA testing. In August, there was a great conversation about LGBTQ+ folx and adoption. The panelists talked about coming out to adoptive families, sexual orientation and how it can affect reunion, how dating and adoption can intersect (among other intersectionalities), and more. There was so much to say they held another session the following Saturday, and I have no doubts many conversations are still going on.

The panelists are consistently amazing and insightful. The adoptees attending the events ask great questions and share thoughtful comments. Astrid Castro, a Colombian transracial adoptee and thought leader in adoption, is the founder of Adoption Mosaic, and she facilitates the discussions. I especially urge adoptive parents, whatever age your adopted child is, to take advantage of the opportunity that is Adoption Mosaic’s We The Experts series. 

Adoption Mosaic has several resources about adoption and suicide posted on their facebook page as resources for the September 12 panel.

I want to also note a few other resources, by and for adoptees. One is Stop Adoptee Suicide, an Facebook page that provides resources. Another is this post from Intercountry Adoptee Voices (ICAV), “Dealing With Adoptee Suicide.”

Another important event will be Adoptee Remembrance Day, October 30, 2020. “Adoptee Remembrance Day is a day to recognize all of our brothers & sisters who are adopted, that didn’t survive adoption. It’s also a day that signifies an acknowledgement of loss for adoptees because before we’re ever adopted we experience the biggest loss of our lives that’s continuously ignored by our world today. Over the years, the adoptee community has had multiple conversations on creating a day set aside for adoptees, but we’re ready to bring this to life as a way to raise awareness and honor those adoptees who are no longer with us. It’s important that we don’t forget them and after all we’ve lost, adoptees deserve a day just for them.” – Pamela Karanova. Pamela is the force behind Adoptees Connect, whose goal is to “focus on putting adoptee voices first by creating a safe and valuable adoptee-centric space, created by and for adoptees, where their voices can meet and be heard.”

In recent years, the number of adopted adults who are speaking out about adoption has increased greatly. Each one has an important perspective to share, and I am glad to see their wisdom being acknowledged. Discussions around mental health and suicide remain challenging, in and outside of adoption, and each of us feels a terrible sorrow at the news of an adoptee dying by suicide. September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. Let’s keep learning, together.

A crisis text line is available 24/7. That link will take you to text lines in other countries as well. In the US, you can talk to a counselor right away by texting HOME to 741741. If you or someone you know is in an emergency, in the US call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or call 911 (or your country’s emergency number) immediately.

Adoptees and Suicide: Resources and Thoughts for Adoptive Parents (And Others)

As the White adoptive parent of 4 Black children (two born in the U.S., two born in Ethiopia; now adults in their 30’s), I have learned a great deal about both the joys and sorrows of adoption. One of the sorrows is that some adoptees struggle mightily with depression and trauma, no matter how deeply they are loved. This can become especially pronounced in adolescence. For those adoptees who are placed in abusive adoptive families, I can only imagine how horrific, lonely, and devastating their struggle must be.

Many adoptees do just fine. I don’t want to pathologize adoption or adoptees. That said, I urge all of us adoptive parents in particular to get a deeper understanding of suicide prevention, and to know that there are signs, treatments, and actions we can take.

I know of at least four Ethiopian adoptees who died by suicide. A (not adopted) Ethiopian 7th grader died by suicide a few years ago here in Washington; his parents are immigrants. They, their family, and their community have been devastated by the loss, as is, I am sure, any parent whose child has died by suicide. The parents and other family members need support and hope, which can come in many forms, as they try to recover and heal.

In my writing on adoption, I always try to promote the voices of adult adoptees, their lived experiences, their stories, and their professional expertise. 

Here are some examples of the voices we should be aware of and learn from, even as we are talking about the wrenching subject of suicide. There is a Facebook page Stop Adoptee Suicide set up by and for adoptees; there are some great resources listed on the page. There will be an Adoptee Remembrance Day October 30 organized by the adoptee leadership of Adoptees Connect. The page Intercountry Adoptee Memorials was created by Intercountry Adoptee Voices (ICAV) to honor those who adoptees who died by suicide or at the hands of their adoptive family.

Besides a willingness to read, and to make efforts to help families recover and heal, what can we do? 

Know that talking about suicide will not make someone suicidal. In fact, it can reduce the risk. Learn more here. That’s the site of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

Consider consulting with therapists who are adoptees. Here is a list, created by Dr. Chaitra Wirta-Leiker, of U.S. based adoptee-therapists. Dr. Wirta-Leiker is herself an adoptee and is also an adoptive parent.

Listen to adoptee-led discussions.

* One great podcast is Canada-based AdopteesOn; the Healing Series on suicide is thoughtful and powerful.

* Another excellent resource is AdoptedFeels, an Australia-based podcast hosted by two international adoptees, which had a 3-part series on adoption and suicide. Look here for the episodes.

 * Adapted podcasts (for Korean adoptees living in Korea and elsewhere) has had at least two episodes related to suicide.

* In September, Adoption Mosaic will hold a “We the Experts” program on suicide and adoption. The experts are adoptees. Non-adoptees (adoptive parents, partners, friends, support folx of adoptees) are invited to attend as well, and agree to be silent: to intentionally listen and learn. Stay tuned for more information soon.

 When looking for resources for your child, look for adoption-competent therapists. Ask what their training is in adoption and trauma. The Center for Adoption Support and Education has trained more than 1800 therapists in 18 states via a curriculum called Training for Adoption Competency. 

Keep these resources handy:

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline phone number: 1-800-273-8255 (Note: in 2022, there will be a 3 digit number for folx to call, but that is not in service yet. Keep using the number provided above until then.)

The Lifeline page has a link for resources for youth who might be struggling.

The Crisis Text Line can be reached  by texting HOME 741741 in the U.S. and Canada. You can text 85258 in the UK, and 50808 in Ireland. It is available 24/7.

Here’s an article I wrote on Adoptees and Suicide Risk, for a publication of Adoptive Families Association of British Columbia.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the role that racism and bullying (including cyberbullying) can play in the lives and deaths of adoptees.

The parents of Kaleab Schmidt, an Ethiopian adoptee who died by suicide in 2018, are working hard to get their school system to face the racism and racial bullying that their son endured at school. Kaleab had many struggles: abuse in Ethiopia, the loss of both Ethiopian parents, deep trauma endured there as a little child. If you believe that adoption itself is a trauma (the separation from one’s mother, the deep grief of losing one’s only known family, and in the case of international adoption, losing one’s country, language, history, and heritage), then you understand that Kaleab experienced many traumas. Add to that the blatant racism and bullying he received as the only Black student at his school, and the fact that (from the reports) no genuine effort appears to have been made by the school to address the bullying or the racism, and your heart continues to break.  

Racial mirrors matter. Surround adoptees with people who look like them. Racial isolation is painful. 

  • The Adopted Life blog of Black transracial adoptee Angela Tucker has several posts, videos, and interviews about the impact of racism on adoptees.

“The Harris Narratives: An Introspective Study of a Transracial Adoptee by Susan Harris O’Connor, a Black transracial adoptee; “In Their Voices: Black Americans on Transracial Adoption” by Ronda M. Roorda, a Black transracial adoptee, and “Outsiders Within: Writing on Transracial Adoption,” edited by Jane Jeong Trenka, a Korean transracial adoptee, are just a few examples of books written by (as Adoption Mosaic says) the experts in adoption: adoptees.

For more general information: Here’s a British site about Racism and Racist Bullying. Here’s information from the U.S. National Education Association on How to respond to incidents of racism, bullying, and hate in schools. There is a link in the article to some additional resources. I realize most school are doing remote learning, but the information is still relevant. Given that many kids are home and spending lots more time on social media, online bullying exists as a real and ugly possibility. Here’s one resource about cyberbullying directed toward teens. Here’s another more general one for children and teens: Cyberbullying.

Kaleab Schmidt, who died at 13 years old, was a victim of cyberbullying, among other racist incidents, according to an inquest requested by his parents. “School officials testified there was allegedly a Snapchat group called ‘I Hate Kaleab Schmidt’ created by students at Greenall High School.”

Imagine if that were your child.

We all need to work harder at protecting children from racism and other forms of abuse.

If your White adoption social worker did not prepare you well for transracial adoption (and I feel safe in saying that was the case for many adoptive parents), there are plenty of adoptees who can provide incredible information and insights. Listen to them. If your adopted child is a victim of bullying in school or on the web, especially of adoption- or race-related bullying, advocate fiercely for them. I realize some bullying can be inevitable, but racial-based bullying can be horrifyingly intense for a transracially adopted child whose white parents haven’t experienced racism. When the children grow up and go out into the world, the racism can be gutting.

This has to stop. Hard work and hard conversations must happen. May Kaleab and all those who died too soon rest in peace and in power.

San Juan Islands, 2016 &Copy; Maureen McCauley

 

 

 

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.

Another Adoptee Suicide: Unspeakable Pain

This week I heard about the death by suicide of a young Ethiopian adoptee, reported by his US family to be about 12 years old, living in America since 2013.

My heart aches for everyone–for the boy, for his family in Ethiopia and here in the US, for all of us.

Adoption can be full of great joy, many gains, and lots of love. It can also have deep layers of grief, loss, and trauma. I do not know the circumstances of this most recent death. I do know that adoptees attempt suicide at higher rates than non-adoptees, and do so at alarmingly young ages. One source of information is Pediatrics: “Risks of Suicide Attempt in Adopted and Non-Adopted Offspring.”

My post “Suicide and Adoption: We Need To Stop Whispering” has had thousands of views in the last few days. Please take a look also at my post “Resources Around Trauma and Suicide in Adoption.” There is lots of information there about suicide prevention, depression and PTSD resources, strategies to talk about suicide awareness, and more.

Save this number somewhere: 1-800-273-8255, available 24/7, 365 days a year. Their website is here: Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

I am saddened by how many people I know in the adoption community who have considered suicide and who have attempted it. Almost everyone in the adoption community knows personally of adoptees who have died by suicide.

Let’s keep talking about the realities of depression and trauma, and encouraging others to talk about their loss and fears, especially around adoption, without judgement or dismissal. It’s tough stuff. We have to do it.

There is a GoFundMe account for the family of the young man who died by suicide. Since I’ve been asked about it several times, here is the link.

May everyone find compassion and healing.

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Candles at a Vancouver BC Church. © Maureen McCauley Evans