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

In Memory of Seid Visin

By Mark Hagland, South Korean intercountry adoptee raised in the USA, co-founder of Transracial Adoption Perspectives (a group for adoptive parents to learn from lived experience), and author of Extraordinary Journey: The Lifelong Path of the Transracial Adoptee

What We’re Learning

In the past few days, since the news broke on June 4 that 20-year-old Seid Visin had ended his life through suicide, the Italian and European press have published articles and broadcast segments on his death, with a fair amount of disbelief and confusion involved. There are a number of reasons for the confusion, some of them journalistic—questions over the statement he had apparently made a couple of years ago to his therapist, versus what might have been going on in his life most recently—but most of all, because of statements made by his parents Walter and Maddalena.

Walter and Maddalena adopted Seid at the age of seven; he grew up in their home in Nocera Inferiore, a suburb of Naples. I can understand that they are deeply confused by what’s happened; but it’s also clear to me that, despite their good intentions, that they have no understanding whatsoever of his distress over the racism that he continued to experience. I’ve just viewed an interview with an Italian broadcast program called “Approfondimento Focus,” in which they kept reiterating how happy he was, how his recent psychological issues were related to the COVID lockdown, which they blamed for his recent depression, and how he had no interest whatsoever in his Ethiopian background. They also repeatedly denied that racism had anything to do with their son’s emotional distress.

That last set of statements on the part of Seid’s parents really struck me in a number of different ways, particularly given the excerpts of the text of that letter to his therapist of (apparently) a couple of years ago, that have been released. Per that, Corriere della Sera obtained a letter that Seid Visin wrote to his therapist two years ago, and Rolling Stone Italia has published it. In it, Seid wrote that, “Wherever I go, wherever I am, I feel the weight of people’s skeptical, prejudiced, disgusted and frightened looks on my shoulders like a boulder.” He wrote that he was ashamed “to be black, as if I was afraid of being mistaken for an immigrant, as if I had to prove to people, who didn’t know me, that I was like them, that I was Italian, white.” This feeling led him to make “jokes in bad taste about blacks and immigrants (…) as if to emphasize that I was not one of them. But it was fear. The fear of the hatred I saw in people’s eyes towards immigrants.”

As a sports journalist wrote in Le Parisien, “His death caused great emotion in Italy. In 2019, the young man pointed out the racism he was subjected to, writing a post on social media in which he expressed his discomfort. ‘A few months ago, I managed to find a job, which I had to quit because too many people, mostly older people, refused to be served by me,’ he said. They also accused me of the fact that many young Italians could not find work. The adoptive parents of the victim, however, wanted to provide details. ‘Seid’s gesture does not stem from episodes of racism,’ they told the Italian press.”

Here is the text of the letter; its exact date is not certain, and there is confusion as to when it was written—either very recently, or about two years ago—but in any case, here it is:

“I am not an immigrant, but I was adopted as a child. I remember that everyone loved me. Wherever I went, everyone addressed me with joy, respect and curiosity. Now, that atmosphere of idyllic peace seems very far away. It seems mystically. everything was reversed. Now, wherever I go, I feel the weight of skeptical, disgusted and scared looks on my shoulders. I had managed to find a job that I had to leave because too many people, especially the elderly, refused to be cared for by me. And as if it were not enough for me, they accused me of being responsible for many young Italians (white) not finding work. After this experience, something changed within me. As if I was ashamed to be black, as if I was afraid that someone would mistake me for an immigrant. As if he had to prove to people he did not know that he was like them, that he was Italian.

I have even made distasteful jokes about blacks and immigrants, as if to emphasize that I was not one of them. The only thing that explained my behavior was fear. The fear of hatred he saw in people’s eyes towards immigrants. The fear of contempt that I felt at the mouth of people, even my relatives, who wistfully invoked Mussolini and ‘Captain Salvini’. I don’t want to beg for compassion or pity. I just want to remind myself of the discomfort and suffering that I am experiencing. I am a drop of water next to the ocean of suffering that is living who prefers to die to continue living in misery and hell. Those people who risk their lives, and those who have already lost it, just to snoop around, to savor what we simply call ‘life.’”

A couple of very important notes here. First, it is quite significant that Seid explicitly references not on Mussolini, but also Matteo Salvini, the former Deputy Prime Minister, and still current Senator in the Italian Parliament, who is Secretary of the Lega Nord, or Northern League, which is a right-wing racist, xenophobic political party, whose supporters are pretty much the equivalent of the supporters of Donald Trump in the United States. There has been a massive surge in the expression of overt racism and xenophobia in Italy in the past decade and a half, and the racist xenophobia has exploded in the last several years, particularly as many thousands of Black Africans have entered Italy as refugees from war, conflict, and poverty in Africa. Second, in the letter above, he made it extremely clear that he was deeply distressed by the racism he had been experiencing.

Interestingly, his mother Maddalena, in that interview broadcast on the “Approfondimento Focus” program, kept emphasizing that Seid had recently been depressed because of the isolation imposed on him and others during the lockdown this spring. Obviously, there is rarely simply one single cause for suicidality. Seid could certainly have been depressed during the nationwide lockdown in Italy this spring. But that absolutely does not negate his extreme distress over his lived experience of racism.

Reflecting on all this, I see a tragically classic situation for a young adult transracial, intercountry adoptee, a young person who was racially and socially isolated, who was experiencing ongoing racism, and whose parents, from what we can tell, were in denial about the racism he was experiencing and the distress he was experiencing because of it.

Another tragic loss of yet another transracial intercountry adoptee life.

I’m sharing a post from La Repubblica, with a link to a selfie-video (which has since been taken down so I post this one instead) in which Seid is enjoying dancing.

May the memory of Seid and his life be a blessing.

Related Resources

ICAVs Memorial Page

Read Mark Hagland’s contribution to ICAVs other post: Can we Ignore or Deny that Racism Exists for Adoptees of Colour?

We Need to Talk about Adoptee Suicide, Now