Are Adopted Teens More Likely to Kill Themselves?
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