Demystifying the stigmatization of adoptee suicide

By Lina Vanegas, MSW and adopted from Colombia to the USA.

It is shameful that suicide is so highly stigmatized by society. Religion and the law have contributed to the stigmazitization of  suicide. The law has perpetuated their stances by creating laws that make suicide illegal. There are 26 countries where suicide is currently illegal including Kenya, Bahamas and Jordan. It is completely wrong to criminalize, shame and stigmatize people who are struggling and suffering. Religion and the law are not the only institutions or systems to do this but I use them as an example to demonstrate how much impact they have on society.  All of these thoughts are absorbed by society which doesn’t inspire or create empathy, compassion or understanding for people who are suffering.

The shame and stigmatization around suicide is evident in the language that we use to discuss suicide. When we say “committed suicide” we are likening it to a crime. It’s truly not a crime. We do not say a person “committed” cancer, a heart attack, a stroke, or Covid, We do say someone “committed” murder, a robbery, an assault, or rape. Those are crimes.. The crime around suicide is that someone died because they were struggling so much internally, mentally, and emotionally. Let’s also stop saying they “killed themself.” What killed that person was a mental health struggles and they died by suicide. It is essential that we create a paradigm shift where we lead with empathy, compassion and understanding. 

When people use this terminology, they are stigmatizing suicide. A person who died by suicide has friends, family, neighbors, acquaintances and loved ones. When they hear this choice of words it hurts them—and they are already grappling with the stigmatization of a suicide death. You may know them, but they will probably not talk to you about their loss after they hear you use such hurtful and insensitive language.  

Western society stigmatizes and shames those who struggle with mental health issues and mental illness. There are a myriad of expressions and things that use suicide in the name/title that are offensive and cruel to those who have (or are) struggling with suicidal thought/ideations, have attempted suicide, and for those of us who have lost a loved one to suicide. People will use the expression quite freely “I am going to kill myself” and “I will just kill myself” and “Go kill yourself.” These are daggers for those who have been impacted by suicide. These comments are completely tone deaf, insensitive and cruel, and reflect the general lack of understanding and empathy around suicide.

We need to make the discussion around adoptee suicide an ongoing and regular conversation. It is not enough for us to talk about it sporadically. This conversation needs to be had three hundred and sixty five days a year. Adoptees are struggling and suffering twenty four hours, seven days a week and three hundred and sixty five days a year. The statistic that adoptees are 4 times more likely to attempt suicide is from research published in 2013 by the American Academy of Pediatrics. 

We need current research done on adoptees all over the world. I am writing from the United States so the ideal organizations to fund and conduct this are the American foundation for Suicide Prevention and the American Association of Suicidology. These studies would help inform prevention, awareness and education. Until society realizes the mental health crisis that adoptees are facing, we will continue to be struggling in silence. We are an invisible and oppressed community literally fighting for our lives. We desperately need support and suicide prevention. 

I wanted to pay tribute and honor the two adoptees that have died this month. They were both transracial intercountry adoptees. It’s is key to highlight that there is a link between this and mental health struggles, racism and suicide. Many of us experience microaggressions and racism due to us not being white. These experiences impact our mental health . Adoptive parents have no idea what this is like as they do not experience this incidents and many prefer not to see our race so that does nothing to help us. Some adoptive parents perpetuate racism and microagressions which take a toll on our mental health. 

Alejandro Gobright died June 2. He was adopted from Guatemala to the United States. He is described from a tribute I read as “a great singer, poet and incredible friend.”

Seid Visin died June 4. He was adopted from Ethiopia to Italy. He played at the youth academies of AC Milan and Benevento. He explained in a letter before his suicide death how he was suffering from constant racial abuse and treatment. It is essential to point out that his adopted father went out of his way to point out after Seid’s death that racism did not play a role in his death. This is a clear example of an adoptive parent ignoring, not listening and not wanting to deal with the struggles Seid was dealing with.

I am extremely sad and angry every time I write about adoptee suicides. These deaths impact the entire adoptee community. Alejandro and Seid are a part of all of us. There are roughly five to seven million adoptees in the world and it’s time that we begin to talk about adoptee suicide. 

Read Lina’s other articles on Adoptee Suicide, Part 1 & Part 2.

Other Resources on Adoptee Suicide

Hanterar självmord av adopterade
ICAVs Memorial Page
Adopterades minnesdag
Det är en svart vecka för adopterade i Europa
Till minne av Seid Visin

3 svar på ”Demystifying the stigmatization of adoptee suicide”

  1. Mirah Riben – Author of "shedding light on...The Dark Side of Adoption" (1988) and "The Stork Market: America's Multi-Billion Dollar Unregulated Adoption Industry" (2007).
    Mirah Riben skriver:

    Thank you for writing this much needed article.

    There needs to be more current stats and they are very hard to come by. Many suicides are classified as accidents and very few deaths of adoptees by any means are recorded as the death of an adoptee. The underlying problem is that once an adoption is finalized adopted persons are considered “the same as if” born into their families and adoptive parents are considered above reproach so there are no follow-ups with the exception of some studies based on adoptive parents narratives form their perspective.

    Additionally, there are zero stats on birthmother suicides.

    As for hurtful language, it is hard every time anyone asks me how many children I have. Depending on how well I know the person asking, I often just answer 3 because of further questions such as where do they live. It is a very delicate issue and one I feel I have right to choose to share or not.

    If I feel safe enough to share that I had four children and one has passed, I am then faced with additional questions such as what did die of and have never found a comfortable way to say that she chose to end her tortuous life, or that she succumbed to fatal depression.

    The guilt surrounding survivors of the suicide of loved one is incomprehensible.

    1. I am currently grieving the suicide death of my adopted son, two weeks ago. He was 14. He came from Ethiopia when he was 6. He was outwardly extremely hapoy, talented,athletic, popular and well adjusted. He did well in school. He was not taking any drugs and had nice friends. He displayed zero signs of any problems. He was always cheerful. I am devastated because I have realized that nothing I ever did could compensate for the loss of his birth Parents and trauma that he had before the age of 5 in the orphanage. I am so extremely sad that this affects adoptees so deeply. His life would have been hell in Ethiopia, but he still must have had so much pain here. We are a biracial family with two other sisters from Ethiopia. Over the 8 years, he had been to several psychologist and psychiatrists for “ADHD” which I now recognize as trauma and PTSD, and I am so sad and disappointed that no one helped him or even asked. As far as anyone was concerned, his life began when he was adopted. I would like to support any initiative that would help other adoptees, and I now have a completely different view of adoption. I am so so so bereft and feel so terribly guilty that I was unable to help him.

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