Are Adopted Teens More Likely to Kill Themselves?

Dawn Davenport

25

increased risk of suicide in adopted teens

Why would a young man who loved soccer and seemed to love life kill himself? What role does adoption play?

 

On October 9, 2014 Fisseha Sol Samuel took his own life leaving behind confusion, blame, and the almost unbearable grief caused by suicide. Fisseha was 20 years old, and from all accounts loved life, soccer, friends, and family. His brother Lee said at his funeral that Fisseha was the most “down for any adventure” person he’d ever met. Fisseha was adopted 10 years ago from Ethiopia by Melissa Fay Greene and her husband Don Samuel.

Since his death, his family has gone over and over the last weeks of his life trying to rearrange the pieces to make them make sense. This questioning is one of the awful legacies of suicide. They are not alone. A recent study found that adopted adolescents are four times more likely to kill themselves than non-adopted youth.

I didn’t know Fisseha or his family, but I feel like I know them both through his mom’s beautiful writing—an essay she wrote about Fisseha when he first came home in the New York Times Magazine, “The Flying Son”, and her book about her family of nine kids, “No Biking in the House Without a Helmet.” (I interviewed her several times on the Creating a Family Radio show once about adopting from Ethiopia and once about adoptive parenting.) But in the end, no one really knew what Fisseha was experiencing, maybe not even himself.

This normally upbeat young man was apparently demoralized by being benched the second year in a row on his college soccer team. As a boy who lived for soccer and had always been one of the best, this was no small matter, but why would a normally content young man with lots of friends who seemed to love life and was planning for the future kill himself over something like this?

No one knows, but his mom believes now that it may have something to do with an “acute relapse of trauma”. Fisseha, like many children adopted at older ages, experienced much loss in his young life. With her permission, I share her words to all adoptive parents.

“[T]o my friends in the adoption world, whose cherished children may not have arrived unscathed from their earlier lives, the only advice I can offer from this terrible perch is: try to get them to talk about sad times as well as about happy times. We never did this with Fisseha. We assumed he was calm, content, and resilient all the way to his core. We never saw a shadow of grief or pain in him; he was boundlessly generous and playful, as in the photos I just posted–typical of him to suddenly spring into a handstand. We used to say he was the most chill person we’d ever seen other than President Obama. We didn’t know there were tragic depths. I don’t think he knew anymore, either. Until they roared back at him. So he had no practice in defending himself against–preserving himself against–feelings of exclusion, humiliation, and loneliness. They took him apart.”

 

Fisseha was adopted at an older age from Ethiopia, but the latest research found that the increased risk of suicide in adopted young people held true regardless of age at adoption or type of adoption.

Original research on suicide risks showed an increased risk amongst adopted adolescents, but did not distinguish between those adoptees that had experienced trauma earlier in life. A more recent study, however, out of the Univ. of Minnesota on 695 adopted teens compared to 540 non-adopted teens, found that the increased risk of suicide was across the board. The vast majority of the teens in the Univ. of Minnesota study were adopted under the age of one, and although most were adopted from Korea reflecting the common adoption trends in Minnesota 15 years earlier, the risk of suicide was the same regardless of type of adoption.

This study raised more questions in my mind than answers. Is the increased risk of suicide for adopted teens caused by the very act of adoption or by other factors such as genetics, prenatal exposures,  or lack of attachment to their adopted families? Are adopted children more impulsive in general due to genetics, which might reflect an increased risk of suicide? What are the warning signs of a child that is struggling and what can parents do? We plan to have the authors of this study on an upcoming Creating a Family Radio show to explore their finding further. To receive notice of this show, sign up for our weekly newsletter.

I didn’t know Sol, and yet I grieved.

I don’t know his parents or siblings, and yet I grieve.

I grieve partly because I have a soccer-crazed child the same age; I grieve partly because but for the grace of God this could be my child; but mostly I grieve because the world lost a bright spirit and will never be the same without him.

The eulogy at Fisseha’s funeral is almost unbearable to hear. I listened last fall and sobbed. I listened again yesterday and sobbed. It just doesn’t make sense, but I guess suicide never does.

The day Fisseha took his life was my son’s birthday. While my family celebrated our son’s life, the Samuel family was beginning the lifelong mourning of their son’s death. On that day of light and happiness for my family, they entered into a darkness where they still dwell. My heart breaks for them.

Adoptive parents, adoptees, and first families need to discuss this sad topic. What can we do to help the kids that we love with all our hearts?

P.S. Melissa is also the author of the wonderful book about the Ethiopian AIDS crisis, There Is No Me Without You: One Woman’s Odyssey to Rescue Her Country’s Children. No other book captured this crisis and the children left behind as well.

 

Image credit: Onny Carr

21/01/2015 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Adoption, Adoption Blog, Blog | 25 Comments



25 Responses to Are Adopted Teens More Likely to Kill Themselves?

  1. JoCos says:

    Birth is not a green card to a perfect life with our biological parents. When a woman can not raise her child, it is a loving act to find a family who can fulfill her dreams as a mother. A child may feel abandoned, however, placing a child for adoption is not abandonment. Leaving a child in desperate circumstances is abandonment. It takes love, courage and humility to make this choice on behalf of the best interests of one’s child.
    My sister was loved beyond words by our family. She challenged and rejected our parents and her siblings at every possible opportunity. It was as though she never wanted us to be her family. In fact, she completely rejected all of us upon becoming a teenager and has nothing to do with us now. My sister was suicidal for decades. We all stood by her through it all, hoping for the day when she would feel as though life would be worth living again. Thankfully, the day came when she truly loved herself… we think… however, she informed us that we were not who or what she wanted for a family. She rejected us. Her life had come full circle and she had the power to reject the family that was not of her choosing or biology. In some ways, it was and is empowering for her to have rejected the family she did not feel was her birthright. We were imposed upon her, she did not want us. She wanted her biological family, end of story.
    So, now she is content. We are left feeling the intensity of broken bonds and intense guilt over not meeting her needs. My sister is my sister, to me. To her, we were a mistake that happened to her.
    In my heart, I know that adoption can and does create happy families. When we start seeing each other as a reflection of love, rather than of biology, anything is possible.

    • Dawn Davenport Dawn Davenport says:

      JoCos, I am so sorry for your loss of your sister. I can only imagine how hard that must be for you and your family! I know you didn’t lose her to death, but it is a loss nonetheless.

  2. Melissa says:

    I think genetics is a huge factor to this study. I know my daughter’s biological grandparents both died very young…not from disease but mental illness and addictions. I think many biological families in today’s world that find themselves in these situations have an underlying reason why. Our agency warned us that they have taken children as infants and placed them in loving, upper middle class homes and their parents still find them one day in a cheap motel room bed strung out on heroine, just like their biological mother had been. It sounds harsh but it let us know that genetics is a huge factor and we may find ourselves in a heartbreaking situation one day no matter what we do. It’s scary to think about. And honestly I don’t think about it at all now; she’s a joyful little girl. But I know this…she has the best chance here with me and I will fight to the ends of the earth to keep her healthy and safe.

    She also had a strong say so in what happened to her. She screamed for us through her entire bio family visits. She knew where she had been hurt and where she had been safe and she wanted to be where she was safe. I’m glad I’ll be able to tell her this if she ever feels like people were making decisions for her and she had no control over being separted from her bio family. She definitly advocated for herself! “She may be little but she is fierce.” My petite fighter.

    Also, for potential adoptive parents reading this, a lot of adoptees do not feel this way. I have a friend, aunt, and cousin who are all adopted. They don’t sit around dwelling on it. They love their lives, their families, and have started their own families. They all encouraged me to adopt and, to my surprise, all advised me against an open adoption (allowing bio family visits). Which was something I was considering after the adoption finalized and I went to them for advice. I think you might not find the flip side of the coin (i.e., happy adopted children who consider themselves lucky and blessed by adoption) commenting bc they are not on these websites. They are just out living normal lives that don’t currently involve reading adoption blogs bc it’s not really relevant to their lives now. Please don’t get discouraged. There are plenty of happily adopted adults out there…I’m related to them.

    • Jess says:

      About what the agency said: Wow! Why not just flat-out tell the kid, “Hey, your mother was a heroin sucking whore and you will be too”? Honestly, that was dreadfully insensitive and kind of ignorant. When original families face challenges, nothing is gained by giving a child the message that even with all his “advantages,” sooner or later he’ll invariably “sink” to his genetic level. Whatever parents children had, most still love them. Original parents should not be torn down this way. Addicts recover. People smarten up. Besides, it’s going to be up to the child at some point to decide if she wants to navigate a relationship with them. There’s really nothing as an AP that you can do about it. Nor should you.

      Sorry this is wandering off-topic but I had to respond.

      • Dawn Davenport Dawn Davenport says:

        Jess, I must have missed something. I didn’t see where anyone said “Why not just flat-out tell the kid, “Hey, your mother was a heroin sucking whore and you will be too”?” I completely agree that adoptive parents should take a nonjudgemental and loving approach to birth parents. You might enjoy these two recent blogs:
        Do I Have to Pretend to Respect My Child’s Birth Parents
        Adoptee Begs for Nonjudgmental Compassion for Birthparents

        • Jess says:

          Dawn, I inferred that from the following remark:

          “I think many biological families in today’s world that find themselves in these situations have an underlying reason why. Our agency warned us that they have taken children as infants and placed them in loving, upper middle class homes and their parents still find them one day in a cheap motel room bed strung out on heroine, just like their biological mother had been.”

          Was I incorrect in inferring this?

    • Anonymous IF says:

      Thank you for this-I needed to hear this like you wouldn’t believe. Too many times here and on other sites AP’s who ask to be treated like human beings are told that they are not open to learning from adoptees and first parents. It’s nice to hear another voice. Thanks again

    • Anonymous IF says:

      Melissa-thank you so much for your comment. As someone who is as a result of IF forced to consider alternate family building options, your comment is something I have been waiting to hear for a long time. That children who are adopted and/or brought into this world through alternate reproductive means CAN have a preference that has nothing to do with their biological origins. Yes, biological origins are important, but surely the things that we as AP’s or otherwise non-biological parents can offer (love, security, safety) have value as well. I only wish that adoptees like the ones you know and love would be more vocal online, even if it is only to ensure that their voice is not drowned out by those who seek to dismiss any parenting arrangement that is not based solely in biological connection. There is so much of that online that it is hard to feel that adoption is anything but harmful and hurtful. Although I am sure that if those more moderate adoptees or birthparents were to speak out, they would be quickly dismissed as having “drunk the kool-aid” or as being delusional-I have seen that happen as well. Perhaps these other adoptees and birthparents know this and so choose to ignore those other places in favour of living their lives and loving their families as a whole, no matter how they are related to them. My best to you and your “petite fighter”-I’m sure she is a lovely girl, and that you are a great parent!

  3. Anonymous IF says:

    Adoptomuss and Kym-there is a time and a place for everything, and this blog post and the subject matter of it is NOT the time for the Family Preservationists to cue up their “greatest hits”. Anti Adoption talking points are absolutely inappropriate to this conversation-nothing like kicking a grieving family while they are down. Where is your sense of decency-these people are grieving THEIR CHILD who has died in one of the most painful ways in which a parent can lose a child. For the love of all that is good and holy-SHOW SOME RESPECT FOR THIS BOY AND HIS FAMILY! My condolences go out to this young man and his parents-yes, they are his adoptive parents, but at the end of the day that is not the issue, at least for anyone who has a sense of compassion or an ounce of humanity!

    • Dawn Davenport Dawn Davenport says:

      The reasons behind any suicide are so complex and mixed up. I didn’t mean for this post to be just about Fisseha and his family. I chose him because he put a face to this rather startling research. I also chose him because I wanted to highlight his mom’s words about talking about all parts of our kids’ history, even if they don’t seem to be suffering. Such wise words. He wasn’t the ideal “face” for this study because he was adopted at age 10 and had experienced a lot of transitions in his first 10 years, almost all the subjects in the study were adopted before age 1. What I do know is that he was adored by his family. I can’t fathom the pain they are going through.

      • Anonymous IF says:

        Dawn-I did not mean my comment as a criticism of your blog post or the issues that it explores. I found your post to be very sensitive and informative. My comment was directed towards the individuals whose posts serve to do nothing more than further their own anti-adoption agenda. I find myself getting tired of the broken record that these folks seem to spout every time something related to adoption is mentioned, but this time it went over the line. It’s bad enough that this family had to lose their son to such a tragic turn of events, but to have those who oppose adoption use it as an opportunity to rub it in and say “I told you so” makes me wonder about the humanity of these individuals. Such cruelty is inexcusable!!!! I found the blog post on its own very informative and eye-opening, and it is valuable for those reasons.

    • kym (not the one who posted below) says:

      Anonymous IF,
      Please realize that you’re not the only one upset when an adoptee commits suicide. Sadly, some adoptees feel like it could have been them too, if the circumstances or variables had been slightly different.

      Yes, of course condolences are for the person who committed suicide, and the adoptive family, friends, relatives, or anyone who loved or cared about this person, or who identified with this person, and also for the first family, who may or may not even know that their family member had committed suicide. Unfortunately, first family members are often excluded from life-changing announcements, as you did in your condolences, even when requests are made to include them. This overlooking and erasing of the first family can contribute to some of the complexities and dilemmas in some adoptions, and can add more burden on the adoptee to feel what might not be natural.

      It’s a tragedy, not to be made light of. It’s also a tragedy to try to better understand, so that fewer loved ones and people succumb to it. In that sense, adoptomuss and the other kym do provide valuable insight into this complex practice called adoption, that may or may not have played a big role in his suicide. Because, yes, it is a very painful way to lose a child you care about and love, and it’s painful to many others who understand some of the pain these adoptees feel.

      And please don’t lash out at other people, who are probably upset too, upon hearing news like this. Have a bit more compassion and humanity please for fellow human beings.

      • Anonymous IF says:

        Kym-I understand that my comment was wrong, while those made by those calling grieving adoptive parents “human traffickers and kidnappers” while accusing them of attempting to cure their infertility through adoption are to be held up as an example of normal and civilized behaviour. But like those other commentors, I am only human, and as such I do not like to see vulnerable people being attacked. And that’s what those comments were-an attack, designed to promote an agenda that holds within it no room for compassion and sensitivity to adoptive parents of any stripe. Perhaps there are sensitive, compassionate and respectful Family Preservation Advocates out there in the real world or online, but I have yet to come across them. Perhaps if one of these more moderate FP advocates had taken it upon themselves to respond to this blog post and they were able to keep their bruised egos and self-righteous attitudes in check, I would not have been driven to comment as I did. But since that did not happen, I felt called to respond.
        And btw-not that it is relevant, but a little fact that you might be interested to know is that Fisseha Sol Samuel’s adoptive parents (or as I prefer to call them, his parents) did not adopt him or his other sibling as a response to being infertile. They had 4 biological children prior to adopting Fisseha and his other sibling. But yet Adoptomuss felt the need to trot out the well-worn chestnut “adoption is not a cure for IF”. Why? If that is the only bit of “wisdom” that those who oppose adoption can offer in conversations like this, I suggest you keep such “wisdom” to yourselves-it’s not only not helpful, it’s irrelevant. It would be irrelevant even if Fisshea’s parents were IF prior to his adoption. All that really matters now is that a family has lost their child to suicide and they are grieving. Please do not forget that. Even if your ultimate desire is to rub it in and say “I told you so”, please let your humanity overrule your self-righteousness. It’s the civilized thing to do. Thank you.

  4. Joanne Currao says:

    There are many older adoptees from the closed records era such as myself who can answer some of these questions. Separation of a child from its mother always results in trauma. It is pre-verbal and primal and we carry it with us our entire lives. We all react to it differently, but of course it is still there. Many of us feel disconnected in spite of the most loving of adoptive homes. We see ourselves as rejected of our first parents, whether by their choice (which is rare) or by societal stigma and shame. We do not fit in with our adoptive families because we do not share genetics. We might be in a completely foreign culture than what we knew…language, appearance, smells, sights, customs, etc. We cannot mirror ourselves in anyone we are surrounded with. This can be a source of tremendous pain which we learn to bury as best we can. Any depressed person can still smile and laugh, but when the door is shut at night…and a person is all alone by themselves…that is when the truth is there. For some, it is haunting and they seek any escape. For some, I guess suicide is the only way to be free from that pain permanently. It is horribly sad, but for many this is truth. We are trained from our earliest to ignore the sense of loss, because we live in a society absolutely in love with adoption. We as a society romanticize it all the time…to the detriment of many an adoptee. This romanticizing and ignoring of our trauma results in an awful loneliness because it is very invalidating. Adoptive parents would take note to validate their adopted children’s trauma, pain, and allow them to voice it. It is not an indictment against them. It is just the result of a separation from someone they knew from before they were born…a person they were programmed by nature to know and expect and love so much so that they are a part of you.

    • Dawn Davenport Dawn Davenport says:

      [Adoptive parents would take note to validate their adopted children’s trauma, pain, and allow them to voice it.] So very true.

  5. Jess says:

    So glad you published this. My first boss committed suicide. By the time she did, she was no longer my boss and we were friends. I was in that vortex of bewilderment for years.

    At this point, I do not think there is any doubt that adoption adds a huge layer of complexity and for many, pain, to just living. My daughter never speaks of it, but if I were to probe, it would be there. She is not suicidal. She is bursting with humour, grace, intelligence. But I wonder what a serious blow to self-esteem would do to her. That is why I always wait in the wings. Also, I do think age has something to do with it and there might be a threshold where the risk goes down. At some point–maybe adoptees can speak to this–I wonder if you integrate adoption into your being, with all its losses, and it is just there, but not lying in wait ready to take you down.

    • Dawn Davenport Dawn Davenport says:

      Jess: I have wondered too about the role of a serious blow to self-esteem. It does seem, from the outside looking in, that is what played a big role in Fisseha’s death. I also have wondered about the role of impulsivity. A psychologist I spoke with once who specialized in ADHD said that more adopted kids had ADHD and that this was to be expected because ADHD has a genetic connection and people who got pregnant unintentionally or when they were not in the position to parent were more likely to have ADHD, thus there children were more likely to have ADHD. I have also read where that impulsive people are more likely to commit suicide. This of course does not explain everything (as if that is even possible), nor does it mean that all adopted kids are born of accidental pregnancies. This is especially not the case in most international adoptions from China, and many from Ethiopia.

  6. Adoptomuss says:

    Being adopted is a very painful thing. It hurts to know that your own mother turned her back and gave you away, no matter how good your adoptive home is. Adoption is not a cure for infertility. Please, please think many times before separating children from their families. Adopted adults kill themselves too.

    • Dawn Davenport Dawn Davenport says:

      Thanks for your insight Adoptomuss.

    • kym says:

      True. It also hurts to know that you were trafficked or kidnapped, and that those who adopted you don’t mind this tidbit of your life.

      • Jess says:

        I think you’ve raised an excellent point. If you discover after the fact, as many of us did who adopted internationally in the ’90s, that all is not well with your child’s history as explained by his or her country of origin, then you cannot withhold that information from your child and your cannot explain it away or excuse it either. Doing so could definitely lead adopted people to think their history doesn’t matter or they aren’t worth the trouble of others being held accountable for their actions–even when those actions are blatantly unethical.

  7. Pingback: Tackling a very hard subject… | The adopted ones blog

    • Dawn Davenport Dawn Davenport says:

      Thanks TAO. I wasn’t able to leave a comment on your blog–something wonky about my WordPress.com sign in, but was going to say over there that I truly look forward to talking with the authors of this study.

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