Ethiopian Adoptee Gabe Proctor, NCAA Champ, Died By Suicide

Earlier today, I wrote about the death by suicide of a deported Korean adoptee, Phillip Clay. I am deeply saddened to report another adoptee suicide.

Ethiopian adoptee Gabe Proctor was just 27 years old, and died by suicide this past Saturday at his adoptive parents’ home in Vermont. The obituary shared by his family said he had struggled with depression from which he could find no escape.

Originally from Mekelle, Ethiopia, Gabe was adopted along with his to Ethiopian siblings in 2000. They grew up in Vermont. He graduated from Western State Colorado University, where he was a world-class distance runner. He was a professional runner in the marathon and half marathon.


A runner friend shared her memories about Gabe here.

Donations in honor of Gabe can be sent to Hope for Youth Ethiopia. The address and more information are available here. His funeral service will be held in Vermont on Friday, May 26.

How many more times can we hear about these deaths, and not work harder to learn about depression and suicide prevention, especially among adopted persons?

My small contribution is to post fairly often about this painful reality, to share information about the trauma of adoption, as well as to provide suicide prevention resources for individuals and families.

I hope that more adoption agencies, counselors, and therapists will take note of the role of depression, trauma, and suicide prevention as they relate to adoption.

Depression can be oppressive. It is very real. It is an illness which can affect people no matter their circumstances.

My deep condolences to Gabe Proctor’s friends and family. I cannot imagine their sorrow.

 

 

 

Remembering Hana Alemu Today, and Reflecting on the Murders and Suicides of Adoptees

Six years ago today, on May 12, 2011, 13-year-old Ethiopian adoptee Hanna Williams, born Hana Alemu, died from hypothermia and malnutrition in the backyard of her adoptive home. In September of 2013, her adoptive parents, Larry and Carri Williams, were convicted of her murder, and will be in prison for decades to come.

While many of us adoptive parents of Ethiopian children have mourned her death, I don’t think we can underestimate the impact Hana’s death has had in Ethiopia. The news of her death made headlines there, and the subsequent trial and sentencing of her adoptive parents reverberated in many corners and conversations in Ethiopia. The circumstances that led to Hana’s death–the isolation of eating outside from the rest of the family and not being allowed to participate in Christmas or birthdays, the punishments of water on sandwiches and frozen vegetables for dinner, having her head shaved for cutting the grass too short, having food withheld as punishment, being forced to shower outside, being hit for failing to stand the right way, and being locked in a small, dark closet for hours at a time–are harrowing at best. The jury at the parents’ trial agreed that the treatment met the standard of torture, and that is not an easy legal standard to reach.

Hana Alemu (Williams)

For Ethiopians in government and in the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, for the average Ethiopian aware that thousands of Ethiopian children were sent each year to other countries for adoption, and for the Ethiopian parents who have placed children for adoption, the news of Hana’s life and death after only three years in America was heartbreaking and infuriating. My sense is that her death has been an undercurrent in considerations of policy changes regarding international adoption from Ethiopia.

We can say it was a rare case, and that’s true. It does not give solace. There may be some resolution in knowing that Larry and Carri Williams will be in jail for over 20 more years. That knowledge though is tempered by the fact that Immanuel, the other Ethiopian child they adopted and abused, will probably be haunted for the rest of his life by the trauma of his time with them. Their 7 biological children, who witnessed the abuse and testified about it at their parents’ trial, have also been badly damaged by the abuse and the death–which several of them witnessed–of Hana.

None of us can know what went on in Hana’s mind and heart as she endured the cruelty of the people who were supposed to love her and keep her safe. Three-year-old Hyunsu O’Callaghan, adopted from Korea, was killed by his adoptive father about four months  after he arrived in the United States. Hana and Hyunsu’s fates crush the popular narrative of adoption: the orphan in search of a family, the parents who take her in, the happy life then lived by everyone.

Another crushing blow to the fairy tale narrative is the reality and tragedy of suicide in the adoption community. Again, yes, it is rare, for which we are all grateful. Still, when we hear about the death by suicide of adopted persons, especially for example the suicide of a 14-year-old Korean adoptee just 11 days ago, all of us in adoption need to look at ourselves and what we are doing to educate and help.

I don’t know if there is a unique poignancy to the deaths of adoptees, but it feels that way. Adoption is supposed to mean a better life, right? That can be true (depending how you define “better”), but another larger and vital truth is that adoption follows loss. Loss can also be trauma. Adoption can be full of love and equally full of deep sorrow and grief. Many people struggle with depression and anxiety, and as a society, we are still reluctant to recognize those struggles as real. As an adoptive parent, I have known many adoptees, both young children and adults, who wrestle with depression that may well be rooted in having been adopted. That’s true for people growing up in deeply loving families who provide all available resources for mental health challenges, as well as for those whose adoptive parents are abusive. For those who get help, the struggle can still be difficult. For those who don’t, it can be excruciating. Add in the complexity of growing up as a person of color in our racist society (much of which does not/will not believe we live in a racist society), the bullying which has aways existed but is exacerbated by social media, the lack of racial mentors/mirrors/role models for adoptees, and a history of neglect and abuse prior to adoption, and it’s easy to see how a delicate balance can be tipped into despair and worse.

Please let me offer some takeaways from these haunting deaths:

Adoption is rooted in loss, in the cases of infants placed at birth with adoptive parents, in the cases of children removed from abusive or neglectful situations, and in the cases of adopted children who grow up with loving families. It doesn’t mean therefore all adoptees are doomed to despair and ruin. It does mean that as adoptive parents, we must be aware of the role that trauma and loss can play as our kids grow up, and even well into adulthood.

The screening process for prospective adoptive parents must include serious discussions about possible struggles with depression and anxiety for adoptees. Parents need to hear directly from adopted persons about their struggles. Anyone involved with preparation for prospective adoptive parents and with counseling of parents and adoptees must step up their services prior to adoptive placements to encourage families, after placement, to reach out for help and not live in isolation, as the Williams’ family essentially did. There is no shame in asking for help in difficult circumstances, whether children or parents are struggling.

Everyone, with or without a connection to adoption, should file away the phone number of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255. If the Def Jam artist Logic can release a song about it, the rest of us can surely keep the phone number, share it when needed, and learn about suicide prevention. There are many resources available to anyone considering suicide and to anyone who fears that someone may attempt suicide.

And please do not think I am ignoring the needs of first/birth parents, and the loss and trauma that they experience. While my focus here is on Hana and other adoptees after an adoptive placement, I recognize that first/birth parents also need support and resources for depression or other challenges post-placement.

I keep Hana in my heart. What happened to her should never have happened to any child. The notion of children dying by suicide is wrenching as well. I know many adult adoptees are especially grieving the loss of their young counterparts, and looking for more ways to help. We need to keep conversations open, especially around adoption, depression, and loss. We need to acknowledge the pain and complexity, to speak up for vulnerable children, and to offer help to struggling families.

 

13 Reasons Why, Teen Suicide, Social Media, and Adoption

Your teens or preteens may be watching a highly popular show about a teenager who died by suicide. They could even have seen real teens die by suicide livestreamed on Facebook. We all need to open our eyes, talk with our kids, and have suicide prevention resources close at hand. This may be especially important for adopted teens.

Your kids may be watching the Netflix show “13 Reasons Why.Based on a book with the same title, and produced by Selena Gomez, it’s about a young woman who died by suicide and left 13 tapes behind to explain why she killed herself. It’s a popular show. It includes rape, bullying, grief, and graphic depiction of the dead girl cutting her arm open and dying alone in a bathtub. It’s about how her friends try to understand, and, I guess, try to do better, be kinder, in their lives now.

It’s possible to binge-watch all 13 episodes. And I would guess that most teens, and even pre-teens, could do exactly that without ever talking about it with their parents or any other caring adults.

It’s a lot to take in.

Are you aware of that suicide is the second leading cause of teenage deaths? You can read the CDC report here.

 

 

Are you aware that adoptees have been shown to be four times more likely to attempt  suicide than non-adopted teens? You can read the report by the American Academy of Pediatrics here.

Are you aware that at least two teens have live-streamed their suicides on Facebook? You can read a newspaper article about it here.

Please don’t stop reading this post, though I know it can feel overwhelming. The risk of suicide by teens is real, and horrifying. Adopted teens may well be more prone to considering, and carrying out, dying by suicide.

There are many resources available for prevention. I’ve written about them here: Resources Around Trauma and Suicide in Adoption. As parents and as people, we need to pay attention to subtle signals, keep communication lines open, and be willing to talk about suicide as we would sex and drugs.

Here’s another good resource: 10 Things Every Parent Needs to Know About Teen Suicide.

Here’s an article from Ravishly: 6 Reasons Why Our Kids Shouldn’t Be Watching 13 Reasons Why.

Here’s an article from Rolling Stone: Does 13 Reasons Why Glamorize Teen Suicide?

And here’s the 24/7 number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 Put it in your phone. I hope you never need it for yourself or for anyone else, and I hope you have it if you do.

Even kids from happy. loving families consider suicide. Even if your teen is doing fine, he or she may have friends who are struggling. Share information. Be aware of the impact of popular shows like 13 Reasons Why. Be aware of teens livestreaming their own deaths on Facebook.

Yes, it’s a lot to take in. Don’t look away.

 

Thinking of Fisseha, Thinking of Ethiopia

Two years ago today, Ethiopian adoptee Fisseha Sol Samuel was found to have died by suicide. I am thinking of him and his family, the US and in Ethiopia today. He was, of course, much more than an “Ethiopian adoptee,” and I don’t mean to limit his impact in and on the world. He was a son, a brother, a soccer player, a friend, a person of warmth, laughter, and energy.

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Fisseha Sol Samuel

I wrote a post about him shortly after he died: Fisseha Sol Samuel: “Irreplaceably Marvelous.” I continue to keep him in my heart, as do many people.

Last year, on the first anniversary of Fisseha’s death, I wrote about October, Traumaversaries, and Hope. I’m not sure just why, and this is totally anecdotal, but October can be especially hard on many folks.

Right now, October seems hard on Ethiopia. After months of unrest, protests, injuries and deaths, Ethiopia is now in a state of emergency. It’s difficult to know what this means for the government, the protestors, the farmers, the students, the businesses, the tourists, the missionaries, the children, the schools, the people in cities and countryside, the people in jail, the journalists and bloggers, the future. It’s heartbreaking. Ethiopia is and will be a side note in the news, not on the radar for a lot of people, especially as our own U.S. politics dominate the headlines and social media.

So today, I reflect on Ethiopia, on those who have left it and those who remain there. I reflect also on the loss of Fisseha. His mother, Melissa Fay Greene, has written beautifully (no surprise, or course) about her beloved son in the two years since his death. Fisseha’s sister, Helen Samuel, has a powerful essay about her brother in our upcoming anthology, “Lions Roaring, Far From Home.” Suicide claims so many victims. Here is a link to some Resources Around Trauma and Suicide in Adoption.

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© Maureen Evans. Photo taken at Lake Langano, Ethiopia, Summer, 2014.

I am thinking today of both Fisseha and Ethiopia, on the notions of potential and loss, of sudden life-changing decisions, of hope for the future, of our understanding of what can be controlled and what cannot. My mom used to say we should pray for perspective, for a sense of what really matters in hard times, especially given that tomorrow is not guaranteed to any of us. That approach, she suggested, would help us hold on to hope or to faith, and move us toward healing. May our memories lead us towards peace.

October, Traumaversaries, and Hope

T.S. Eliot may have called April the “cruelest month,” but I am thinking October–6 months after April–gives that notion a run for its money. October holds Halloween, and the Day of the Dead. It’s when school kids (right up to college) often move out of the honeymoon start of school, and problems start surfacing. Trees in many parts of the world change their colors, and leaves drop off. Harvest season has ended, fields lie fallow, days get darker.

An Ethiopian adoptee, the British poet Lemn Sissay, wrote this on his Facebook page a year ago today, October 9: “When October arrives, part of me leaves. I want what leaves to come back.”

A year ago today, Fisseha Sol Samuel died by suicide at 20 years of age, near the soccer fields of his college campus. I send my heartfelt condolences to his family, left behind, grieving mightily, healing slowly.

In The Wasteland, Eliot wrote that “April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing Memory and desire…”

Memory and desire. Loss and love. The powerful combination that can firmly glue and sometimes rip apart a family, a child, a beloved soul.

We celebrate or observe anniversaries of important events. Sometimes, less official but quite real, we experience traumaversaries:  a feeling of sadness, anxiety, and/or grief around the anniversary of a trauma (experiencing a deeply disturbing frightening event). I hear this term “traumaversary” fairly often in the adoption community. Adoptive parents note that their children fall apart (crying, overreacting, withdrawing) at a particular point of year because the children had experienced a traumatic event during that time, a year before, 10 years before. Often the body remembers, even as the mind seeks to forget, and an edginess or anxious vigilance can manifest on the anniversary. I know of a young adoptee who had a psychotic episode in October many years ago; every October the fear that it will happen again, the unsettling knowledge that it happened at all, permeates the month.

It’s hard stuff. And it is real. I offer these thoughts to assure people they are not alone in and on their traumaversaries, whether in October or any cruel month. There are resources, and there is hope. Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness, said Desmond Tutu. Sometimes we need to be the light for others; sometimes we ourselves need to look for it. The astronomer Pamela L.Gay, writing about Childhood’s Shadows, notes that “you can only be there for someone when they let you be there. You can only listen to someone who is willing to speak. You can not force yourself into any other person’s life no matter how much you may want to be there for them.

So I watch, and I wait for the moment when my extended hand will be taken. When you are ready for help, understand that I will still be here.

And on this October night, on traumaversaries, and in this cruel, crazy, beautiful world, may we watch, and listen, and extend our hands.

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Flower in Ethiopia, 2014. © Maureen McCauley Evans

 

A tip of the hat to Dr. Jason Evan Mihalko, who today tweeted the link to the “Childhood’s Shadows” post.

“Understanding Why Adoptees Are At Higher Risk For Suicide”

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.

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Invitation to Share Information on Adoptees and Suicide

I reached out to Forefront, a nonprofit suicide prevention organization here in Washington state, about depression, trauma, and suicide in the adoption community. I asked if they might consider highlighting adoptees in some way on their website, to provide information for them and their families.

Today I was invited to be a guest author for their blog, as well as to offer other ideas of how I think they could bring awareness to this issue on their website.

I am honored to do so, and am very appreciative of Forefont’s response and their openness to receiving and providing this information.

I want to open this up to adult adoptees to share in the writing of the blog post and the provision of information. It may or may not have been my status as an adoptive parent that opened this door, but I would like to go through it with the voices and insights of adult adoptees. I know so many who have amazing professional credentials as therapists and researchers, who have hard-earned experience with depression and trauma, and who have had loved ones attempt or die by suicide. Please: send me an email at Maureen (at) LightOfDayStories.com and let me know if you would be willing to help shine more light on the role of suicide, and suicide prevention, in the adoption community.

First/birth parents are welcome also, of course, as are adoptive parents, siblings, spouses/partners, and others. We need many voices. Suicide affects all of us, and we must work together on prevention.

Here’s some information about Forefront. Please check out and support their website.

“Mission: Forefront advances innovative approaches to suicide prevention through policy change, professional training, campus and school-based interventions, media outreach, support for persons affected by suicide and program evaluation.

Vision: We envision Washington State as a community where there is no suicide. To achieve this goal: 1) the public needs education that suicide is preventable including how to help those affected by suicide; 2) individuals in crisis have to have rapid access to effective treatment for behavioral health disorders; 3) strategies need to be implemented that prioritize emotional wellness and suicide prevention readiness within healthcare systems, schools and campuses, and by employers; and 4) progressive state policies that support the aforementioned conditions must be enacted.

Goal: Reduce the suicide rate in Washington State by a minimum of twenty percent by 2020. Once successful, Forefront will broaden its outreach to other states where the rates of suicide in the U.S. are the highest.

At Forefront, we know most suicides are preventable and that the time to act is now.”

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Resources Around Trauma and Suicide in Adoption

It’s a balancing act to discuss adoption as trauma. The idea of adoption as trauma is relatively new, and I understand that it’s disconcerting for many people. Separation from one’s mother as baby or child is traumatizing; we are hardwired to connect with our mothers. Adoptees often undergo additional separation from caregivers in a foster home or orphanage. Those losses can be traumatic as well, and the trauma can manifest over time or later in life. Depression is also disconcerting, to the 19 million Americans who struggle with it and to those who love the people who are struggling. Many adoptees struggle as children, as teens, and as adults with anxiety and depression. Talking about these medical conditions can be hard. Still, as anyone involved in adoption or in life knows, not talking about difficult, uncomfortable things rarely ends well.

It’s also a balancing act to encourage discussion about suicide without encouraging suicide. Same with remembering those who have died by suicide without inadvertently glamorizing suicide. High schools, for example, face this dilemma when a student has died by suicide, not wanting to trigger any sort of imitation, or “suicide cluster.”

Suicide is the third top cause of death among 10 to 14 year olds, and the second top cause among 15 to 24 year olds.

My post Suicide and Adoption: We Need to Stop Whispering has been shared on Facebook about 800 times since I published it last Monday. There have been several thousand views and visitors, and I have heard personally from many people. Clearly, it struck a chord, and we need to keep this conversation going, even if it is complicated and difficult to balance.

For anyone in crisis, call this number: 1-800-273-8255. You can call the number if you are considering suicide or if someone you know is. Available anytime, day or night. 24/7/365.

Two significant resources are the Suicide Prevention Lifeline and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Both have huge amounts of information, research, and more. I’ve reached out to both organizations above, asking if they would consider providing adoptee-specific information on their websites.  I’ve offered to draft material and network with them about this, and I hope I hear back soon. Please reach out to them as well.

Here are suggestions for talking with someone who may be suicidal. I share this because there are many resources available for this tough stuff.

Most suicide attempts are rooted in some sort of trauma and/or depression. Many people who have considered or died by suicide have also been diagnosed with depression and/or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. President Obama in February signed a suicide prevention law to make it easier for U.S. military veterans to access mental health resources. The law also provides funding to recruit and retain professionals to help veterans struggling with PTSD and other challenges.

Here’s an eye-opener: Former foster care children are almost twice as likely as US war veterans to suffer from PTSD. You can read more in this Casey Foundation report.

I’ve cited, several times, the American Academy of Pediatric’s report that adoptees are 4 times as likely to commit suicide as non-adopted people but it bears sharing again. Read the report here.

We can recognize that trauma is a part of adoption, without claiming that all adopted people are affected the same way. Many do just fine, handling challenges with resilience and strength. Many struggle, and those are the ones I want to recognize, acknowledge, and assist, if possible.

Here are some strategies and resources:

  • Learn about trauma in adoption. “Assume that all children who have been adopted or fostered have experienced trauma.” That is a central quote from the American Academy of Pediatrics guide for pediatricians, “Helping Foster and Adoptive Families Cope With Trauma.” Share this resource with your pediatrician.
  • Make suicide awareness a component of pre-adoptive parent training classes. Suicide awareness should be part of information provided to prospective parents about trauma, depression, and anxiety disorders, and their frequent appearance in adoptees.
  • Insist on speakers in pre- and post-adoption workshops who have struggled with depression and trauma. Agencies: Improve networking with adult adoptees and adoptees who are therapists, so that adoption agencies have several speakers to provide for families.
  • Understand why access to medical histories for adoptees is essential. Denial of that information (which could be lifesaving), in regard to mental illness and other medical conditions, is unconscionable. The American Adoption Congress has focused its legislative advocacy efforts on opening access to original birth certificates. Information is available here.
  • Advocate for adoption competency among therapists. Suggest that families also look for therapists trained in childhood trauma, as well as in adoption-related issues.
  • Advocate for strong post-adoption mental health services for everyone: the adoptee, the adoptive parents, and the first/birth parents.
  • Suggest, promote, and provide workshops with titles like “Depression Among Teenage Adoptees: What It Looks Like, What Can Help,” or “The Presence of Suicide in Adoption,” or “PTSD and Adoptees: The Realities and the Treatments,” and “Adult Adoptees Speak Out About Depression, Anxiety, and Suicide Prevention.”
  • Learn about the impact of bullying and cyberbullying on children and teens. According to the site stopbullying.gov, “Although kids who are bullied are at risk of suicide, bullying alone is not the cause. Many issues contribute to suicide risk, including depression, problems at home, and trauma history. Additionally, specific groups have an increased risk of suicide, including American Indian and Alaskan Native, Asian American, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth. This risk can be increased further when these kids are not supported by parents, peers, and schools. Bullying can make an unsupportive situation worse.”
  • Adoption agencies and adoption-related organizations: Provide current, substantial lists of resources to families about therapists, therapies, articles, podcasts, videos, and more related to adoption, depression, and suicide prevention.
  • Learn about psychotherapies that can benefit people struggling with depression and trauma. The National Institute of Mental Health has clear information: Psychotherapies. One therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is for chronically suicidal people diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, and is also used for substance dependence, PTSD, and depression.
  • Learn about the role of addiction in adoption, and how addiction and substance abuse intersect with trauma and depression. One resource is a YouTube video by Paul Sunderland, titled Adoption and Addiction.

Fill yourself and your loved ones with accurate information, with hope, and with attention to deep listening. Let go of shame and fear about mental illness, and encourage others to do so as well. All of us in the adoption community can work together in a powerful way to increase awareness of suicide, and to promote suicide prevention.

 

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