by Rachel Shaw
Recently, there have been a few articles and blogs discussing the relationship between adoption and suicide. A 2001 study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics demonstrated that there is an increased likelihood of adolescents living with adoptive parents attempting or committing suicide than adolescents living with biological parents (Slap, et al., Pediatrics, Vol 108, No. 2, August 1, 2001). Additionally, a 2013 study, also published in Pediatrics, found that adopted children are 4 times more likely than non-adopted to attempt suicide (Keyes, et al., Pediatrics online, Sept. 9, 2013). These studies have also shown that there are protective factors and steps that adoptive parents can take to help reduce the risk for their children.
There is a common stigma around discussing suicide and there is an added complication when discussing it in relation to adoption. However, people who are adopted commonly have a history of trauma including abuse, neglect, and loss. Generally, the trauma that necessitated adoption and not adoption itself is what may create special concern for adolescents in adoptive families. We want to be careful never to stigmatize people who were adopted, but it’s also important to consider factors prevalent amongst adopted people that may make them uniquely vulnerable in order to ensure appropriate support and resources can be provided.
- Family Medical History
- A family history of depression or mental illness may be unknown or limited in detail and early warning signs may be missed
- Wanting to Be “Good Enough”
- Some people who were adopted may fear rejection and feel required to “live up to expectations”
- Individuals who were adopted who are experiencing symptoms of depression may be reluctant to share these feelings with their families if relationships are new and trust is not yet built
- Some adopted people push aside negative feelings and do not seek help, because of fear of not being “grateful”
- Some may feel guilty for wondering about their biological families and medical histories, believing that it is disloyal to their adopted families to show curiosity
- Adopted People are Impacted by Trauma
- All adopted people, even those without a known history of trauma, experience loss and may feel rejected, discarded, or disposable
- As children enter adolescence the normal questioning of “who am I?” can be complicated by not fully knowing their birth story, their biological history, and fear of further rejection. Some, like Elle Cuardaigh, have described feeling “hatched” or “not born,” and see their existence as more disposable than others, making death feel less concrete as well.
- Feelings of disconnectedness combine with normal adolescent questioning, mood swings, and hormone changes and may increase detachment.
What Can Parents do?
Love your child.
Mirah Rubin observed that the most important thing is for parents to “accept that your child comes into your family with an existing family and, very possibly, with grief over losing them. Honor her grief, encourage him to verbalize his anger, and embrace their kin despite your fear.”
Create an atmosphere which is open, honest and encouraging.
A child will look to their parents to know what questions they can ask, so it is important to frequently have age-appropriate conversations with your child, and normalize conversations about their adoption. This allows children to know that they can ask questions when they have them. Children who have demonstrated the best protective factors cite that their adoption was not a secret in their families and that talking about it was not taboo.
Validate your child’s feelings, whatever they may be.
Normalizing all range of feelings and emotions helps children not feel ashamed of what they are experiencing. These emotions may be related to their adoption, or they may be related to growing up. Whatever they are, assure your child that is ok and healthy to be sad, angry, anxious, frustrated, or scared, as well as happy and excited.
Reach out for support.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has released a guide Helping Foster and Adoptive Families Cope with Trauma, to support families and professionals in best supporting children who have experienced trauma and therefore may be at increased risk for depression or suicide. There are many groups that provide post adoption services, support groups, and information to help your child feel comfortable with their story. A list to some services can be found here. Additionally, if you believe that your child is at risk for depression or suicide, reach out for help. The Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a great resource, and includes material specific for youth.