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

Coping with Loss from Adoption Suicide

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

Artwork by Adriana Alvarez

I have lost two people in my life to suicide, the father of my children who was also my ex-husband and my mom. The father of my children was adopted and my mom was impacted by adoption because she lost me to adoption. Both of them sadly fit the statistics. Adoptees are four times more likely to attempt suicide. I would argue that moms (first mothers, original mothers, natural moms) also have high suicide attempt rates.

I am a transracial and intercountry adoptee who was adopted from Bogota, Colombia and have lived the majority of my life in Michigan in the United States. Suicide loss is a death like no other. It is not like a car accident, heart attack, or cancer where there is a clear explanation of how someone died. People who die by suicide are struggling immensely. There is no closure with this death. Suicide is also highly stigmatised, people do not want to talk about it, and many judge the death. Suicide loss for us as adoptees is further compounded and amplified with all of the loss and grief that we have already experienced and it can trigger many of the issues we suffer with related to adoption. 

If you are reading this and have lost someone to suicide, I want you to know that you are not alone and that I am so sorry you are experiencing this horrendously painful loss. I also want you to know that it is not your fault. There is nothing you could have done or should have done. The person who died was in so much pain. You may also be reading this and have been shocked by the person’s death because you had no idea that they were suffering and maybe they seemed happy and like everything was okay. It is still not your fault. Please do not blame yourself or hold onto any guilt. It is extremely painful to know or learn that our loved one was suffering so much.

One thing that I have learned is that some days are harder than others. It  has helped me to know that I can break up my days and I can take it moment to moment, minute to minute or hour to hour or one day at a time as the famous Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) slogan says. The first year for me was a complete blur. It seemed to drag on forever and I was in a hurry to put it all behind me because it was so painful and difficult. Honestly, I cannot remember much because I was in so much shock. Please be patient, kind and gentle with yourself if you have experienced a suicide loss. Suicide loss is such a painful and life changing loss. The first year of loss was really hard because everything becomes a first without them. 

Some of the hardest days for me are, the person’s birthday, anniversary of their death and the holidays. I have learned to sit with my emotions and feel them. I give myself permission to cry and mourn if that is what needs to happen.  If something was too hard, then I created a new tradition or decided not to do it. Then there are times where I just break down because something triggered me and I am back to feeling my grief. Grief is a journey, it ebbs and it flows. It is not linear and there is no expiration date. Please do not let anyone tell you differently or push you to get over it or heal in a certain amount of time. We all grieve differently and grief is not a one size fits all thing experience. 

Artwork by Nicholas Down

It has been a real journey for me to figure out ways to cope and begin to heal. Suicide loss has really changed the way that I have looked at life. I now see that life is short and fleeting and that each day is not promised. I have chosen to use the loss of my mother as momentum to help me live my life in honor of her. I strive to turn my pain into purpose, a path, and power. There have been many ways that I have found to help me cope which I want to share with you.

For me, sitting with my feelings and truly feeling them has been so helpful. Crying, bawling and literally losing my breath sobbing and having that deep soul cry have helped my grieve and mourn.  Therapy has also been instrumental for me. It is really helpful to have a safe and non judgemental space that is just for me.  It is important to find a therapist who works solely with trauma and ideally someone who is adoption competent. Many therapists honestly have not studied adoption so it is hard for them to truly understand us.

I am an avid reader and for me reading and researching gave me answers and helped me gain understanding.  I threw myself into reading and researching suicide. For me it was important to understand suicide so that I could make sense of things. I read a lot from other suicide loss survivors which was really essential because I could relate to what they were saying and I could learn how they coped and healed. The other group that was really important to read and listen to was, suicide attempt survivors. It helped me to be able to gain a deeper understanding of suicide and mental health struggles. It also gave me insight into how I can help people who are suffering from suicidal ideations.

 I joined a grief support group and a suicide survivor loss support group.  Both of these groups allowed me to connect with other people who were experiencing the same things as me and I did not need to explain myself.  I made friends, I cried, I laughed but most of all I realized that I was not alone and I felt seen, heard and validated. I also attend an adoption group which has been helpful because many adoptees are also dealing with suicide loss. It has been helpful to talk with other adoptees about suicide loss. You can look for a group online and accessibility should be easier now that most groups are being done virtually. 

Attending events such as walks that raise money for suicide prevention or attending International Suicide Survivor Loss Day which is in November have also very helpful.  Again, I was able to realise that I am not not alone and I felt like part of a bigger piece. It is inspiring to see money being raised to help prevent suicide, fund research, and also cathartic. 

Movement such as running, biking, walking, and yoga have also helped me cope because they are an outlet where I can release and channel my emotions. Meditation has been great because it has allowed me to slow down and be present in my body. Journaling and writing have been my creative outlet for processing and coping with suicide loss. Making sure that I am eating a balanced diet and getting sufficient sleep has also been really beneficial. The self care piece is really important and it will look different for everyone. Please do something for yourself that you enjoy doing. 

Social media is also a great way to connect with other survivors of suicide loss. There are many groups and organizations that one can join. There are also many blogs, podcasts and articles on mental health issues that discuss suicide which are great resources. 

It has been almost 7 years since my first suicide loss and just over 2 from the death of my mom so it has been a decent amount of time and not a long period of time. I am at a place where I want to share my story whether it be to one on one, to a group, or through writing. This is not something I could have done early on as it was so painful and I was still processing everything. I find now that sharing my story has really helped me cope and be able to help others.

I have made an effort to  incorporate the people that have been lost into my everyday life. I have purchased ornaments in honour of them for my Christmas tree, framed pictures of them for my house, I purchase flowers regularly in honour of my mom, I light candles, and make their favourite food on holidays or any other time. I am thinking about getting a tattoo in honour of my mom so that she is always symbolically there with me. It has been soothing for me to incorporate them into my daily life. Some other ideas I have thought of are, planting a tree or plant for the person, you can set a place for them at the table, you can buy or create some kind of art that can be in honour of them, you could buy or make a scarf or something to wear that symbolises them. 

I want you to remember that the suicide of your loved one is not your fault. You are not alone in losing someone to suicide.

Please take care of yourself and remember there are resources to help you cope. Be kind and gentle with yourself.

Other Resources on Adoptee Suicide

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

Dealing with Adoptee Suicide

These past few weeks since easter has been reflective and sad for me. Whenever an adoptee friend commits suicide, it brings on many emotions:

  • Raw sadness that we’ve failed another person impacted by adoption!
  • Helplessness that the powers-to-be (sending and receiving governments, agencies, lawyers, social workers) who control and continue to facilitate intercountry adoption, don’t do enough to prevent this type of outcome. We know after 70 years of intercountry adoption, that the trauma involved in intercountry adoption HAS to be supported for LIFE!
  • Anger that it is documented and well understood that we continue to suffer much higher rates of suicide than non-adopted people and yet – the powers-to-be still continue to facilitate intercountry adoption with very little commitment to adequate post adoption supports, nor any consequences to being held accountable for their role in facilitating the adoption.
  • Grief for the people left behind, who are suddenly made intensely aware of the feelings of powerlessness that led the person to leave this world in this manner.
  • Frustration that for the majority of adoptees, we can get to this space without reaching out for help because we are often surrounded by public ignorance and media misrepresentation that adoption is only “wonderful” and provides a “forever family”; or of “a moment-in-time-reunion” that creates an illusion that this will fix the internal pain of needing to know where we belong. The damage these fake messages create when not balanced or listening to those who live it from a broad spectrum across time, is that this message can act to negate and amplify the struggles adoptees often feel.

And where are the supports for those left behind? How does our peer community deal with the ripple effect when this happens? I have not seen many resources to equip us with this. We struggle along, wandering in the dark.

What this does to me is put me on high alert for any adoptees I know who share about being in this dark space. You would be surprised by how many there are – often the ones whom nobody suspects! All I can do is reach out, offer to listen, tell them I am here when they need it most and encourage them to reach out for professional help. This is because the pain is often our deep trauma from relinquishment and possibly complicated if the adoption wasn’t supportive and positive. It’s an awful feeling to wonder who’s going to be next. I’m only one person and there are thousands of us intercountry adoptees. It feels like a ticking time bomb! Yet I also totally know how they feel because I was there during my most painful years. I know how easily life becomes that dark space where you truly believe no-one cares but even if they do … it feels like the pain is never ending.

For those who don’t understand and want to, for me when I was in that space, I just wanted the pain to end! I just wanted to feel some peace! I was tired of crying, tired of being so sad, so angry, exhausted trying to pretend I was “normal”. But suicide is a temporary solution and often when in that space, we aren’t looking at the reality of not being here in life and all the things we will miss out on, or the impact on the people who we leave behind – we just become consumed with wanting to end the pain!

Somehow, we must create a space that helps adoptees deal with this pain in a safe way.

Adoptee suicide drives me to continue to reach out to my peers, to try and create a safe space where their emotions and confusions can exist without judgement. ICAV is about providing resources and connecting peers to enable the journey of finding their truths, encouraging them to find healing, and offering some hope.

I can only wish that adoptee suicide stimulates more of us to reach out regularly to our adoptee peers; check in, show an interest, be a listening ear and help encourage them to reach out to spaces/places where they will be uplifted and supported.

ICAV created the Intercountry Adoptee Memorial Facebook page 2 years ago. Sadly, we have over 30 intercountry and transracial adoptees memorialised there in just this short period of time — but what about those we don’t know of because they never tapped into support networks? They are the ones whom I worry about the most!

This is why I spend my energy advocating to stop or change the way intercountry adoption is done to ensure better post adoption supports (such as free search and reunion and DNA testing, free counselling, free mental health assessments and support), better assessment and education of adoptive families, find ways to enable justice for those who have been dealt the worst hands (deportation, abuse in adoptive families, illegal and illicit adoptions, rehoming). There are so many complicating issues in intercountry adoption and adoptees should not be left to navigate these alone without the right support systems in place. Sending and receiving countries should be held accountable on whether their intercountry adoptions are a success or not. This implies there should be long term follow up on those whom government, agencies and lawyers place — including followup with the families on both sides (adoptive and birth).

Adoptee suicide tells me we still haven’t done enough to prevent and minimise harm caused by the structures that facilitate and support intercountry adoption.

Lynelle Long

Resources

If you are an adoptee impacted by the loss of your adoptee friend via suicide, or you are contemplating suicide, please consider reaching out for professional crisis support and to your local Post Adoption supports.

Peer support can also be useful as we can sometimes advise where to find these professional post adoption and crisis supports. A list of adoptee-led post intercountry adoption supports can be found here; but unless professionally trained, peer support is informal and not provided 24×7.

An article by a local adoptee: Toward Preventing Adoption-Related Suicide.

An article by intercountry adoptive parent: Understanding Why Adoptees are at a Higher Risk of Suicide.

Myths and Facts about Suicide