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

Dealing with Adoptee Suicide
ICAVs Memorial Page
Adoptee Remembrance Day
It’s a Black Week for Adoptees in Europe
In Memory of Seid Visin

We Need To Talk About Adoptee Suicide, Now

by Lina Vanegas adopted from Colombia to the USA, MSW.

It is imperative that we start talking openly and honestly about adoptee suicide. Adoptees are 4 times more likely to attempt suicide. This is an alarming number and most people are not even aware of this fact. Too many adoptees are dead and dying. Adoptees are not seen as a marginalised group. Our lived experience of vulnerabilities and being exposed to complex trauma is unacknowledged by society. Adoptees are thought of as “lucky”, “saved/rescued”, having been given a “better life” and many expect us to be grateful which is really the narrative we need to dismantle for society to see us, validate us, support us and create an inclusive, safe and affirming world for adoptees.

Suicide is such an uncomfortable and tough topic to discuss. Society tends to avoid  conversations when they are uncomfortable. Change and growth happen from discomfort. The community needs to lean into these conversations quickly because adoptees are dying. The discomfort that community members feel is nothing compared to the immense pain, loneliness, sadness that people who contemplate suicide, attempt suicide and die by suicide feel. People who have lost a loved one to suicide are also in a lot of pain.

Our conversations around adoptee suicide needs to be framed for community members around the fact that being separated from our mothers is trauma which can predispose us to mental health issues such as PTSD, depression, suicide and also addiction, eating disorders, self harm, and toxic relationships. Once people are able to grasp the trauma from separation, I think they will be able to understand how it predisposes adoptees to mental health struggles. There is a conflict between what people hear about adoption and believe to be true and the reality of adoption. Once people learn the reality of adoption, I think it will be easier for them to grasp the mental health crisis adoptees are experiencing.

In order to support adoptees, we need to have community members that understand adoptees. Community members need to understand that the symptoms they see in adoptees that are mental health related are most often a result of our trauma. If people can understand this, I think that empathy and understanding around adoptee suicide will be much greater. Adoptees also need to be understood in every system and institution so that they can be seen and helped. For an example, if an adoptee goes to a psychiatric hospital or emergency room because they attempted suicide or have a plan of suicide and the providers there do not understand adoption trauma, then there is no way they can help the adoptee with their trauma. The provider will most likely diagnose and prescribe medication to the adoptee. This will do nothing to help the adoptee deal with their trauma and begin to heal.

It would be beneficial if there were adoptee support groups that were readily available and advertised. Many of us are a part of these groups but they generally function through word of mouth. It would be great if the mental health field professionals would do more research on adoptees. We need the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention to do research specifically on adoptees. The research would then be able to inform awareness, education, prevention and support around adoptee suicide.  It is important that the barriers for adoptees seeking medical, mental, therapeutic or psychiatric help are evaluated and then solutions are made to make things more affirming, inclusive and safe for adoptees. If adoptees are not seeking help, then they will not be able to receive help and we want to make sure they are seeking help when needed and that it is easily accessible. For example, it is very triggering and scary to go to the doctor without a medical history and it is a huge trigger to be asked each time -”Do you have any updates on your family medical history?” or “What is your family history?.”  It is also triggering to hear providers commentary on adoption when we tell providers we are adopted. I have spoken to many adoptees who have told me they avoid the doctor because of these reasons. I too have avoided appointments because it can be very triggering and taxing to continually explain myself and be in the place of having to feel like I need to educate the provider. Sometimes providers are receptive and other times they are very patronising which adds a lot to an already triggering situation. This kind of negative interaction can be a deterrent for any adoptee seeking further care.

Photos: Queensland Council

 It would be amazing if there was a crisis line for adoptees. A crisis line would be very validating because the adoptee would not need to explain themselves or adoption. Adoptees need resources and support that are safe, inclusive and affirming. Sometimes people feel more comfortable texting or picking up the phone than going in-person or on a zoom virtual call. It would also be really beneficial if when suicide deaths are recorded, that the adoption status of the person is included in the data. The information could be further broken down to include race, transracial domestic or intercountry adoption, or foster care experience. This would  give us an idea of how to better shape awareness, education, support and prevention. It will also give us more accurate statistics on adoptee suicide.

One of the ways that the community can support adoptees living with suicide loss would be to first understand adoption and trauma and how suicide attempts and deaths are high in the community. That would be a huge step for adoptees to feel seen and heard. It is so painful to go through a suicide loss and it would be extremly validating to be understood. Experiencing suicide loss as an adoptee can bring up a lot of similar topics that one may struggle with around adoption such as abandonment, not being worthy or good enough, grief, trauma, loss, feeling alone, and many other things.

For families that have lost an adoptee to suicide, it would also be helpful for the community to understand adoption and trauma and the alarmingly high rates of suicide. Families should also have support services available to them which should include trauma informed and adoption competent mental health providers and support groups. We all need and deserve support dealing with suicide loss.

It would be great to have community members that can support adoptees and family members who are living with suicide loss by listening to them without judgement. Suicide loss for an adoptee is super complicated because we have already experienced so much loss and this is another trauma that can be very triggering. As a suicide loss survivor, I really appreciate anyone who can listen without judgement. It is essential to not ask questions like, why did they die, how did they die, did you know they were depressed, did they leave a suicide note. Again, listening is really the most validating and important thing that people can do for each other. If we do not understand suicide, then we should do our part to educate ourselves by reading, listening to blogs and attending events. We should not ask someone who has just lost someone to suicide to do the emotional labor of educating us. They are grieving and need our support.

We need to start talking about adoptee suicide now. It is not going away and the numbers are alarming. If we create awareness and education in our community, it will lead to a more inclusive, affirming and safe world for adoptees. Too many of us are dying or are dead.  If we are feeling safe and comfortable, I encourage people to have these conversations with others when the time arises.  Every conversation can be beneficial and is an opportunity to plant seeds, create change, educate, create awareness, talk about prevention and begin to address the issue of adoptee suicide which will lead to saving lives. I would love to live in a world where the suicide statistics for adoptees are greatly reduced and ideally non-existent. 

Read Part 1 of Lina’s Adoptee Suicide Series: Coping with Loss from Adoption Suicide

Other Resources on Adoptee Suicide

Dealing with Adoptee Suicide
ICAVs Memorial Page
Adoptee Remembrance Day
It’s a Black Week for Adoptees in Europe