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”

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.

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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.

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 attempt 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

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.

Fisseha Sol Samuel: “Irreplaceably Marvelous”

He was not my son, but I see Sol Samuel in many people that I love. Born in Jimma, Ethiopia, in 1994, Fisseha was adopted 10 years ago by the writer Melissa Fay Greene and her husband Don Samuel. Fisseha became Sol Samuel, one of 9 children in a loving, active family. He was an amazing athlete, gifted at soccer, a handsome young man with a warm smile and loads of friends.

He ended his life on October 9.

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He was not my son, but I see the spirit of the vibrant, living Sol Samuel in many Ethiopian and other adoptees that I know and love. Survivors, resilient, charismatic. Great smiles. Most succeed mightily in light of day, overcoming hard pasts, interweaving two distinct realities of Life Then and Life Now. A few who struggle in the night, with painful memories, gnawing fears, and desperate desires to please others, to fill gaps, to know truths, and to trust that life won’t again fall apart.

Most, of course, carry on and do well. They occasionally stumble, but most adoptees, like the rest of us, live out their lives without despair.

Here is a cynical but factual comment I read recently: Adoption and suicide are both permanent solutions to temporary situations.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.

Sol was Melissa Fay Greene’s son. I met Melissa via phone in 1999 or maybe 2000, when she interviewed me for an article she was writing about Dr. Jane Aronson. Melissa and her husband had 4 children at that time, and were in the midst of adopting a son from Bulgaria. They went on to adopt a total of 5 children, 4 of whom were from Ethiopia. Melissa has written several powerful books, including “There is No Me Without You,” about an Ethiopian woman who took in AIDS-orphaned children. More recently Melissa wrote “No Biking in the House Without a Helmet.” I may have had one conversation with Melissa since that first one some 15 years ago. My impression of her when we first talked and since then is that she is a smart, talented, warm person with a fierce devotion to her family.

She wrote a number of times about Sol, including in 2004 about his amazing athletic abilities evinced just one day after his arrival at 10 years old in the United States. In “The Flying Son,” she wrote of him, “When Fisseha ran, ambition fell away. When he ran, he was a ballet dancer alone in a studio, whirling. He was a painter dipping a brush into oil paints. He was a greyhound, flashing over the ground out of its deepest nature and joy. When Fisseha ran, he was Peter Pan, who knew how to fly.”

He was not my son, this beautiful boy will now remain forever 20 years old. So young, so terribly young. The funeral service yesterday was recorded; it is filled with prayers, with the sound of rain, and with steady, wrenching crying. Among the speakers are two of Sol’s siblings and Melissa. Besides deep grief and deeper love, in their voices there is a sense of puzzlement: How could this be, that they are eulogizing their brother, their son? How could he leave? How can he be gone?

Some adoptee suicides get a great deal of press, as in the case of L’Wren Scott, written about powerfully here. Some get very little attention. Much more research is needed in the area of adoptee mental health. Native American adoptees are said to have a high rate of suicide; certainly many struggles have been documented. Deanna Doss Shrodes of the insightful blog Adoptee Restoration has a challenging post titled “When Adoptees Want to Die.” Tough title to see in print, isn’t it? Tough post to read, speaking as an adoptive parent. Incredibly important to read, and think about, and talk about.

We are not very good as a society at talking about mental illness, or depression, or suicide. We need to learn how to talk about it better. Suicide is not often listed as a cause of death: that someone “died unexpectedly” is the phrase used in some obituaries. Unexpectedly, indeed. The shock, the heartache, the questions left behind for loved ones to handle after the beloved has ended his life are unexpected, and enormous.

I have no insights into Sol’s mind or heart, no knowledge of whether he struggled with depression or anything else. I wept as I listened to the eulogy. I feel completely confident that his was a family that would have provided (and may well have) every possible resource to help any of their children, including Sol.

My impression is that Sol’s death was nothing short of a cosmically confusing event. No warning, no overt signs. Was it something about sports, something about adoption, something about relationships? My heart aches for him, his family, his teammates, and his friends, who will now not only grieve but revisit conversations and events for clues, for explanations of the unexplainable. As a parent, as an adoptive parent, I am mindful of the fragility and the strength of our children–how much we know, and don’t know. How much we love, how little we control, how we need to keep trying and reaching out to those we love. Tomorrow is not promised to us.

It may mean nothing that Sol’s suicide occurred in October. Whatever his demons were, they did not operate on any timetable other than some tortured sense of urgency all their own. Another Ethiopian adoptee, the British poet Lemn Sissay,  wrote this on his Facebook page October 9, coincidentally the day Sol died: “When October arrives part of me leaves. I want what leaves to come back. Now.” I can imagine each member of Sol’s grieving family is saying, “I want Sol back. Now.”

Sol was Melissa and Don’s son, and his Ethiopian parents’ son, and the brother to many. Sol and every one of his siblings have a tattoo “1/9th,” said his brother Lee in the eulogy. Each child in the family is 1/9th of the child pie. Lee also said the name “Fisseha” means happiness. Melissa called Sol “irreplaceably marvelous,” “a genius of the heart,” “a natural-born athlete of joy.” May Sol-Fisseha rest in peace. May his family find strength and healing. Lemn SIssay wrote in June last year, “I’m not defined by my scars but by the incredible ability to heal.” May all of us draw strength from that.

Baruch dayan ha’emet: Blessed be the True Judge. This is a Jewish blessing (the Greene-Samuels are Jewish) said at time of death or other difficult time. Rabbi Louis Rieser says the blessing has this meaning: “In the presence of death, filled with a range of emotions (including anger), I cannot understand anything more than my loss at the hand of some power beyond my control. I can, if I must, acknowledge the power, even if I cannot endorse it at that moment. Even in my grief, I can note God’s Presence. …at this dark hour when we feel the loss deep within our being, this blessing asserts God’s Presence alongside the mourner. We are not abandoned, though we feel very much alone. We are not without consolation, though it is hard to hear any words. God stands with us as we face the mystery of death.”

Baruch dayan ha’emet.

Sol’s obituary is available here.

Update: Yesterday (October 15), Melissa Fay Greene posted this lovely message on her Facebook page. Warm wishes for continued healing.

“Thank you all for the messages of condolence. I can’t write much here yet, but will say that, although Sol took his own life, he was joyful, generous, ebullient, kind, and funny every day of the ten years we knew him, basically until last Thursday. Suddenly, inexplicably depressed over soccer, he made the worst mistake of his life. In our son Lee’s eulogy, he described Sol as the most “down for any adventure” person he’d ever met. There is no way Sol actually meant to miss out on every bit of fun he had planned for the coming year (Thanksgiving with family in Florida, his 21st birthday in January, a return to Ethiopia next summer, intermixed with the endless playfulness and fun of his everyday life), much less miss out on the infinite joys awaiting him across his lifetime. We are grateful for everyone’s loving visits, messages, and bagels. We assure you: he was the gleeful, glorious boy you knew, and the 600 or 700 or 800 people sobbing in the pouring rain at his funeral knew that, too.”

 

 

 

September Sadness: Searching for Balance and Light

It’s my birthday month! Along with my fellow September birthday celebrators Beyonce, Meat Loaf, Colin Firth, Sophia Loren, Bruce Springsteen, Will Smith, Lil Wayne, Adam Sandler. I hope you sent them all a clever card. Those sharing my exact day include Hilary Duff, Young Jeezy, Brigitte Bardot, and Naomi Watts. We have in common that we all fall under the sign of Libra, seeking balance.

September, it turns out, can be a very hard month, a time when any of us can feel sad, depressed, anxious, or triggered, as individuals and as a species.

What might be some of the reasons for sadness in September?

* Change of seasons: In at least part of the world, it’s the end of summer, and the days get shorter, darker, and cooler. We stay indoors more. We put on more clothes. We may sleep more, but not feel refreshed.

* September 11 is globally observed as a day of mourning and loss.

* The Autumnal Equinox happens on September 22, and the rapid changes of light can disturb our sense of peace.

* September is National Suicide Prevention Month.

* We send our children off to school, an event that is wonderful and hopeful, but also leaves our homes emptier. The kids are growing up. September means some kids leave home completely.

By mid-late September, the glow of summer has faded, and the challenges of school are firmly in place: bullying, homework, learning disabilities, cliques, meetings, deadlines, projects, testing.

* Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is in full swing. It’s real. It affects those with bipolar disorder, as well as lots of other people. It also affects the friends and families of anyone struggling with SAD.

All of the above is depressing, right? Yes. So let’s be with it, talk about it, acknowledge it, and look at ways to understand and deal with it.

It’s that Libra balance that Keanu Reeves (birthday September 2) and I share (well, maybe): the interest in acknowledging the challenge of September, and in finding the counterpoint in a strategy.

Let’s start with the aptly named SAD. Here is one reason many folks feel depressed and lethargic:  Our skin has an amazing ability to take in sunshine and change it into Vitamin D. Vitamin D helps us to regulate our positive moods. Not enough sunshine, not enough Vitamin D, not enough positive mood.

So, extra Vitamin D can help.

Another reason for feeling down and disconnected is that, in darker days, our bodies produce more melatonin, a hormone that helps us regulate our sleeping patterns. More melatonin can mean disrupted sleep that doesn’t make us feel better.

I drew from this source for the above information about SAD.

Another good approach can be light therapy, something quite popular here in the Pacific Northwest and applicable to many other geographies, including your living room. Basically it’s a supplement of artificial light to make you feel better. Read about it here.

A final note about SAD is that it affects not only humans but also some animals, according to this article from Live Science. A quote, casually placed in the article: “For instance, during long winter days, the Siberian hamsters’ testes increase to almost 17 times their size during short days.” Whoa.

Click here for more information about SAD.

Some of us experience disruption and an undercurrent of sadness during September; some of us deal with significant depression. Even if you’re doing fine, it’s hard to see your friends and family members struggling, a little or a lot. I mentioned above that September is National Suicide Prevention Month. Most suicides, though, don’t happen in September. They happen more often in spring or early summer. Find info about myths and facts about suicide here. We humans are complex creatures.

If you have a loved one struggling, or if you are, here’s a site with loads of information and links.

If you encounter someone on the Internet, on Facebook for example, who seems to be dealing with depression or considering suicide, there are ways to reach out and offer help. Here’s a good source for online helping.

Of course, consult your doctor, your mental health provider, your (trusted, trained, experienced) source of medical information, whoever that may be.

You’re not alone with this, whether you are dealing with depression (or related realities), or trying to help someone else. It’s a hard road. The National Association of Mental Illness has a site to share stories and get support, called Not Alone.

I urge anyone struggling with sadness in September to reach out for help. There’s no shame in it. May we be open to asking for and accepting help. May we offer and give help. May we be open to laughter and love. May we find light on dark days, in September or whenever they occur.