Mental Health and Adoption

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Mental illness, mental health – words which most people don’t like to read in connection with the word adoption. We usually like to think of happy forever after families but the reality is, adoption is based on the trauma of relinquishment and loss so it’s no surprise that adoptees suffer rates of mental illness far higher than the non-adopted population.

So instead of burying our heads in the sand and ignoring the reality, lets talk openly about what we might do better to assist individuals and families with a lived experience of mental illness.

In Australia, October is Mental Health Month and I’d like to explore how we might reduce the feelings of isolation and the daily struggle for adoptees with a lived experience of mental illness. How do we be more sensitive and not inadvertently trigger underlying pain? Not only do adoptees with a lived experience suffer the same loss from relinquishment as all adoptees, but they suffer a double whammy from the stigma of mental illness that further compounds their early life traumas.

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Over the years of connecting and peer supporting my fellow adoptees, the toughest experience is feeling like I let down my fellow peers with a lived experience of mental illness. I do not come equipped knowing intuitively how to support them and what makes it hard in my role as a peer, is the boundaries of peer support via social media and face to face are loose and undefined. What I’ve learnt is, adoptees with lived experiences of mental illness need stronger boundaries because it’s helps them feel safe when reaching out.

I know there’s nothing more powerful than hearing it from those who live it. So, I’ve asked one of my peers who has some ideas from a lived experience perspective. She has kindly shared her thoughts on how we can provide better support to adoptees and she is currently working as a volunteer peer educator in mental health. I personally thank her for providing this wealth of information which she has gathered over the course of her life journey! She does so in the hopes it helps her fellow adoptees with a lived experience of mental illness.

Here is what she provides, including the list of resources at the bottom.

Throughout this article, the term lived experience refers to someone who identifies as having a mental illness, or comes from a complex trauma background, or could be a carer for someone with lived experience. Most importantly we need to recognise that someone suffering from those symptoms has lived experience which is not a label nor does this define them as a person. Just as people aren’t their “broken arm” or their “headache”, physical and emotional / medical illness needs to be treated with the same respect.

Here are some of my ideas of what could be done to better support adoptees with lived experience in mental illness:

Purposeful Storytelling

Encourage others to hold adoptee-with-lived-experience events like a meal or a forum / workshop where they can talk about their recovery journey. This breaks stigma and is not a rant but a shared story with a purpose to help others in sharing what helped.

You could frame the purposeful storytelling like a set of questions for the adoptee to share on such as: What has helped vs what didn’t help? How have you changed from then to now? What would you like to see done or said differently? What do you need more or less of, to continue your recovery going forward?

Social or Workshop Events

Hold weekly or fortnightly coffee catchups or have a walk or art group, but the emphasis is not counselling. Ask the adoptees with lived experience in mental health to write a list of resources that helped them and make it accessible to others online.

Invent an Adoptee wtih Lived Experience Day to honour those adoptees and have a fun, self care activity day. Do this also for their Carers. You could include info booths, pamper booths, plant a tree activity, food and art activities, talks by people with Lived Experience and people of social standing to attend and open the event.

Training / Supervision

Adoptee peers should go through Trauma Informed Care (TIC) training and Developmental Trauma Disorder training (same as Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder training). TIC training is all about asking what has happened to a person and considers the context. This is in contrast to asking an invalidating question such as, “What is wrong with you?” or ” Why are you not fitting in?”.

Training and supervision is about the peer support person learning to respond not just react. General awareness about how we speak and act around people with lived experience is necessary and learning about Boundaries, Duty of Care, Accidental Counsellor, Suicide, Mental Health First Aid are all good tool kits to add to your belt.

Training is also about being, doing and using appropriate language at all times and noticing our own triggers and judgments arising and tending to those.

The Recovery Model or Strengths Approach

Both these models are currently the best for providing a framework for engaging people with lived experience of mental illness. You can access these through Recovery College or a similar type organisation. The focus of these models is to bring awareness to what the person can already do for themselves and what has helped so far. There is also training available for carers of people with mental illness.

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People with trauma experiences may not always show or say anything if they are triggered. So it is important to check in and ask if they are okay. Do things like setup safe places / chill zones during events, just in case.

Self education, training and being on boards / committees of organisations like SANE Australia or Beyond Blue was a way I helped myself. They provided opportunities to share my story or join their speakers bureau. Access to education and event opportunities is important for those with lived experience.

If a peer adoptee with lived experience wants to go on to become a peer educator, I found Recovery College and One Door Mental Health teach all the modules needed, including Purposeful Story Telling. After one completes the modules you become a certified “peer educator” and can then teach at the colleges. One Door Mental Health reimburses those who tell their Lived Experience Story at workshops. You can also be reimbursed when One Door Mental Health are asked by a service organisation to speak on a specific subject like BPD, depression, anxiety or schizophrenia.

Anybody’s recovery is as good as the social connection, support networks, finances for support, understanding and opportunities to contribute. Being treated as normal as possible but with the context of trauma, considered as far as our behaviour / limits / expectations can go. This includes what others are capable and willing to be open minded about and setting a context to the bigger picture.

Everyone needs to know that they are seen and heard and that people care. We who live with mental illness matter and have a purpose. We are often shut out and marginalised and our behaviour makes us vulnerable and an easy target for being overlooked as a valued contribution and educational resource to the community.

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List of some Mental Health Resources in Australia

LION Review by ICAV

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As a fellow Australian intercountry adoptee, I watched LION and found it to be better than what I’d expected after having read so many different reviews.

It captured so many emotional aspects of an intercountry adoptee’s journey. I felt the most powerful aspect was that of Saroo’s adopted brother (also from India) who clearly struggled with his adoptive life from day 1 of arrival into his new family. Being a mother myself of a special needs son who experienced meltdowns, the behaviour I saw reflected a boy who not only had endured the harsh beginnings like Saroo that led to trauma related behaviours, but most likely also suffered from other special needs – apparent by the multiple scars on his head when he first arrived and the meltdown on night 1. I must say, his adoptive parents are portrayed as handling that night quite lovingly and calmly even though I’m sure in reality it must have been a shock after having such a “perfect” adoptive son the first time round. It also serves as a healthy reminder of the need for adequate pre-adoptive education and the realistic expectation setting that adoptees do not come as blank slates, not even new born babies.

Saroo’s adoptive brother’s struggles spoke volumes to me for the adoptees I know who don’t fare well, despite being placed with the best of adoptive families. These adoptees suffer daily and have little respite from their deep emotional and mental suffering and I see this especially from those who arrive as older age adoptees into families who don’t understand there might be any pre adoption trauma. In one section of the film it was raw and painful to hear Saroo accuse his adoptive brother of causing his adoptive mother so much pain. The anguish this caused in Saroo’s adoptive brother’s face – his expression was as if to say, “If I could do better I would … and how dare you judge me!”  This raised in my mind the unrealistic assumption we adoptees hold that it is our role to give our adoptive parents only happiness and joy.

I also empathised with Saroo’s adoptive brother because Saroo’s harsh judgement comes from another unquestioned assumption that we adoptees should have nothing to suffer as our adoption already saved us from all the doom and gloom of our past and created in us a “new life”. As Saroo’s adoptive brother portrays, sometimes that new life eludes adoptees and it is the sad reality that many suffer for the rest of their life and never quite manage to capture that elusive dream of being “happy for ever after” in our adopted life, like Saroo wanted to be capable of.

For those adoptees like Saroo’s adoptive brother who can’t escape our fates, the movie did well to capture this reality. I often hear from adoptees within an adoptive family that one adopted child became the people pleaser and upon appearance, does well versus the other who struggles and pulls the rest of the adoptive family with them. Not from any fault of their own, but just because things are tougher with more to face and having a different personality and personal fortuitude to be able to cope any better. Like Saroo’s adoptive brother, this is their best but it often gets judged as not being good enough in return for showing gratitude in being adopted.

For Saroo who appeared to be the “perfect” adoptee, the film did well to show that even the perfect adoptee is silently struggling inside. His relationship with his girlfriend suffered and she was the one closest to Saroo, his relationship suffered with his adoptive parents, his ability to hold down a job, etc. Everything it seemed was affected by his past! It is so true to portray that even for the “perfect” adoptee we still have raging within us just as intense battles as the “difficult” adoptees do. I believe the seemingly “perfect” adoptee hides it better and is as powerfully driven by the nature of our relentless questions and fragments of life and identity before being adopted as our “acting out” or struggling adoptee.

The dynamics between the two adoptive siblings was powerful and I could feel the sense of wishful thinking to move back to the time which Saroo had prior to his adoptive brother’s arrival. The unforgettable scene at the dinner table where Saroo as an adult finally says “he’s not my brother” is the one moment of truth in their family where the unspoken finally becomes spoken. I think for many adoptive families it is not considered enough how much a new arrival of adoptive sibling can impact the first adoptee / child and how they can come to resent the change in the dynamics and balance to the family.

The other powerful theme which I could relate to, was of how Saroo was so sensitive to his adoptive mother and feeling that he needed to protect her from his truths. This is a reality that becomes visible time and again when intercountry adoptees share with me about their desire to search or understand their roots. They don’t want to upset vulnerable mum who clearly loves and wanted them so much. Our adoptee desire to show our gratefulness and love in return costs us our own truths and creates the necessity to hide it. So too, Saroo ends up isolated and going through his journey very alone and unsupported. He’s so afraid that her knowing about his searching will deeply wound and if not literally “kill” his adoptive mother – which he regards his adoptive brother as doing already.

This is an issue many of us intercountry adoptees have, whether warranted or not, in feeling that we need to protect our adoptive parents. There was also a poignant line in the film after Saroo’s adoptive mother shared about her vision that led to adopting him, saying that it made her “feel good for the first time in her life”. That statement said what many of us adoptees feel but never verbalise – that we are there to make our adoptive parents feel good about themselves and we are afraid to give them any information and truth about ourselves or our life before them, that will jeapordise our relationship with them. We live in fear of them regretting us because we haven’t fulfilled their dream or vision.

How sad that Saroo spent so long having to protect his adoptive mother (and adoptive father) from his real feelings of sadness that his memories caused for him – the depth of his desire to reassure his own biological family that he was alive to therefore stop worrying and searching. What is even sadder is that there wasn’t the truth and openness between Saroo and his adoptive parents to allow both to connect and be supportive to one another because in fact, their realities were not in opposition but could have been symbiotic.

This dynamic is again something I hear from adoptees who share with me and what I also experience myself. We are afraid to really let our adoptive families know the true depths of our sadness and loss about our original families because we feel they will be disappointed or feel “less than” parents to us. Saroo’s adoptive family dynamic is not uncommon in adoptive families but rather, I would dare say it is uncommon to see any other dynamic within most adoptive families. Time and again adoptees share they won’t search until their adoptive parent dies, or they don’t want to share about their desire to search because it will “hurt” the adoptive parent, or they don’t need to search because their adoptive parents are “family” and they don’t need any other.

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I noticed the many times Saroo tried to reassure his adoptive mother – especially when he was heading off to India and again when he had found his biological mother, that she would always be his family and that he loved her. This is such a burden for adoptees to carry – constantly feeling we have to reassure our adoptive parents of our love and gratefulness. You rarely hear of biological children suffering this same burden!  Wouldn’t it be nice to not have to worry about our adoptive families with such an oversensitive barometer!

I was glad to see Saroo made the trip to India by himself. We adoptees sometimes need do this so as not to complicate our trip with worrying about the feelings and complex emotions of our adoptive family. Our search and reunion for some needs to be a moment in time where it’s just about us, the adoptee and our birth family – as it was prior to being adopted – so we can experience our grief, elation to be reunited, sadness and everything inbetween, without the additional burden of feeling responsible for our adoptive family’s emotions.

I loved the ending which explained why the film was named LION and reflected so well, what we adoptees experience – that of not knowing the correct pronunciation of our original name because our adoptive experience is so immersive and complete that we fully lose any ability to speak or understand our birth language, especially when adopted at an older age.

The film did well to portray the state of affairs in India where children who are vulnerable like Saroo was, have very little help offered. There seemed to be few safe shelters, social workers or services to feed the poor and hungry. I’m personally glad to see the film is being used as an avenue to create assistance to Indian street children in future and provide better options than what Saroo experienced.

I look forward to hearing more about Saroo’s journey for I suspect this might just be the beginning of him sharing his voice. He has shared his journey with the WHOLE world and that is no small feat to be so open after keeping his search and feelings so secretive for so long! I hope he will overcome his over-developed sense of responsibility for his adoptive mother and come to take a useful place in the worldwide intercountry adoption dialogue about what really happens for vulnerable children and their families and what needs to be done to protect them better.

In contrast to his adoptive mother who uses the film to promote further intercountry adoptions, I hope Saroo will help create a forum in which the world can delve into ethical questions involved in the rights of vulnerable children and their families and a rightful place for intercountry adoption after ALL attempts to reunify the family has occurred. In the film there was one line Saroo said about his struggle with being adopted into a “place of so much privilege” and trying to make sense of this in contrast to his internal drive to “find home” and family and no-one helping him when he was a lost child. It made me hopeful that Saroo will use his opportunity of worldwide fame as an intercountry adoptee to drive critical thinking about what we in western countries have and our sense of responsibility to use our resources for enabling a better world, instead of gaining from other country’s vulnerabilities.