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

Don’t Tell Me to be Grateful

by Naomi Mackay adopted from India to Sweden.

My Journey

I was adopted to a white family in the south of Sweden from north India in the late 70’s and as soon as I arrived in Sweden, I was told to stop speaking weird and that I was now Swedish. We never spoke about India growing up. If I did ask, I received short answers then a lecture on how horrible India is with crimes, rape, child marriage and killings of baby girls. Because that’s all India is, right? Thank colonisation! I had a packed bag next to my bed with the clothes and jewellery brought from India, just in case.

The trauma of growing up like this invited self-hate and suicidal thoughts and I can’t tell you what stopped me, but animals were my best friends who I would seek solace from when low. There was never a mention of race, only how lucky I was to be brown and my eyebrows and hair would be ridiculed to the point that I would pluck my eyebrows to near extinction and colour my hair to breaking point. I heard talk about race hate but since I’m white, why would this apply to me? I was a white person on the inside who didn’t like to get her photo taken or look at herself in the mirror, as it was a reminder of my colour. I was a white person living in a white world without benefitting from what this means. People from India are not represented in mainstream fashion, music, films and the media and many think that by using one person of colour, they’ve represented us all.

Growing up without anyone looking like me caused much trauma as I found it very hard to accept myself and to find my identity. I wasn’t accepted as white yet this was what I identified as. I wasn’t accepted as Indian but didn’t identify as such. In my early 20’s, when I started to travel abroad more, I realised how uncomfortable I was in my own skin and if a person of colour walked into the room, or anyone mentioned the word, I found it uncomfortable as I realised they were also talking about me. I would divert the topic to something else whenever possible. I started noticing I was often the only person of colour in most rooms, especially in equestrian training and competition which was my whole life growing up.

I have dreamt and fought to become a filmmaker since I was very young. I pursued this despite my family who didn’t see it as a profession, within a Swedish college who didn’t accept me where university tutors laughed in my face on several occasions, amongst funding bodies who excluded transracial adoptees, with Scottish filmmakers who would not let me in and deleted my credentials on a film crew database. I have read many personal statements by Swedish people of colour who relocated to America for a chance at progression within their field. I too was accepted there when I finally gained the courage to apply to do an MA in filmmaking at their two most prestigious filmmaking universities. Do you still think I should be grateful?

Changes

The first time I met Indian people after being adopted was when I moved to Scotland, I was 24 years old and so intrigued and uncomfortable. In my mindset I still saw myself as white and did not relate what was happening to me to be about race. I was cautious of Black people and saw myself above Asians, just in a way I imagine white people do but can’t explain how or why. It kept me safe, mentally. Sometimes I miss this, it was easier to handle than the truth.

In 2020, I became more active in anti-racism activities as I know others who did and I joined many social media groups. There was one particular Scottish group where I live which made me feel very uncomfortable because I was faced by many people of colour with strong confident voices. I found my own without being shut down or drowned out by white people and I came to realise everything which was stolen from me: my culture, my beliefs, my voice as a person of colour, my dignity, my heritage, my language and my roots, my identity. I was sold for profit to privilege others but for which I would never experience the privilege through the Christian faith which I was brought up with. I felt so betrayed. When I continuously keep hearing from my white acquaintances and friends that “You get what you put in”, I started to believe I was just lazy and untalented. I did not take into account their head start and the extra hurdles I have on my journey as a person of colour. It’s a lot to take in and I’m SO ANGRY!! Do you still think I should be grateful?

(Un)Learning

As I started to strip away the whiteness I inherited via adoption, I came to realise that some things are harder than others to remove. My language still needs altering in some ways and I find myself apologising in horror as I become more aware. A few months ago I was asked why I keep using the word “coloured”. It never occurred to me that I was saying it and I’ve even told others off on many occasions for using it. In Swedish, “coloured” is “färgad” and digging deeper I realise it’s still widely used in media and by people in everyday language. After having spoken to several Swedish people and observing the media, I’ve come to realise that there is no alternative wording, so I have decided to establish it, about time!

In Sweden, the English phrases are used and never translated as it makes it more palatable for white people and puts distance between the person and the issue. I have created a Swedish anti-racism page as I really believe in creating the changes needed with a less interactive approach giving white fragility no space. There’s so much about my upbringing I need to unpack and unlearn. The majority of Swedish social media and anti-racism pages I’ve found so far speak only of the prejudice Jewish people face as it’s what white people feel comfortable with. This is not racism through, it’s antisemitism.

I wear my colour/oppression on my skin for all to see and at no point can I ever hide or change this. Why is all this important when talking about my trauma as an intercountry adoptee? Because it shows the very deeply rooted racist societies in which Black and Brown are sold and the deeply rooted internal racism it creates in us. I hate myself for being like this but I hate the people who did this to me more. Hate is a strong word, I’m making no excuses for using it. It’s mental abuse, violence and rape. Do you still think I should be grateful?

Rebuilding

I’m now re-building myself as an Indian woman. A person of colour. A transracial intercountry adoptee and I’ve found yoga is helping me heal although I feel like I’m culturally appropriating it, I know it’s my culture and I have every right to it. Recently I found out I was born a Hindu, so my deep connection to yoga is natural. The more I decolonise yoga, the more I decolonise myself. The most damaging incidences to my healing process have been Indian people speaking down to me for not having grown up there, not speaking any of the languages, nor knowing the culture or religions well, nor dressing in traditional Indian clothing or cooking Indian foods.

For those who are Indian, you are so lucky to have what was denied me. You’re so lucky to know the smells, roots and the love of our beautiful country. I have as much right to any part of it as you and as I’m still learning, I’m grateful to now have understanding people in my life helping me heal. I have privilege in that my accent and whitewashed ideologies fits into Swedish life and people raised in India have privilege in that they didn’t live through the trauma of losing their whole identity via being sold off, and didn’t grow up with the same level of internalised racism, nor seeing parts of the culture on display and being sold back to them. I believe that my inquisitive nature and yearning to learn is the reason why I’ve been open to change and (un)learning. I’ve educated myself on Black history and the trauma of colonialism.

Moving Forward

I believe that as an adult it’s my responsibility to educate myself and learn what I can do to make this world safe for everyone. I am currently working on a documentary film and a book about my life and journey. I recognise many of us are doing this. Our experiences are unique and they’re ours. We all have different ways of coping and I have big trust issues with white people, especially Christians. I see a lot of white centring in my daily life and white adoptive parents speaking about how transracial adoption affected them and the trauma they faced. I’m healing every day and writing this was a step forward.

I have one question for you. Do you support human trafficking? There’s no “but”, just as I could also ask, “Do you support racism?” There’s only “Yes” or “No”. If you would like to support and help children, have a look at what you can do.