CW: Suicide, Suicidal Ideation, Adoptee Trauma
Adoptee statistics are rare, but one that is often shared is that adoptees are four times more likely to attempt suicide than nonadoptees. It’s dated research and not a widespread study, making it problematic.
But if adoptees were more widely studied, my hypothesis is that our suicide-related statistics would be much higher, especially for those of us growing up in Christian households—which represent a significant proportion of adoptees. As an example, I wasn’t included in the study, but I should be counted in the statistic having attempted suicide myself. Tragically, I know countless adoptees raised in faith communities with similar histories.
Ever since early adolescence, I’ve struggled with suicidal ideation that I have come to accept as just one of the many mental health ramifications that’s par for the course as an adoptee. Thanks to my studies in child development, I’ve also come to see that suicidal ideation is not always a trauma response to the loss that precedes adoption—but rather, to the ongoing gaslighting that takes place in our adoptive families and the communities in which we’re raised.
There is little room for us in Evangelical spaces. At church, we’re often pimped as poster children for “the beautiful story of adoption.” In the Supreme Court, we’re often used as pro-life pawns for overturning abortion policy. Within earshot or to our faces, many of us are constantly hearing our adoptive parents gush about how adoption is “God’s will.” We’re frequently expected to be grateful for being saved. This is a reality though adoption has been riddled with corruption and coercion for over a century and many of us were not exactly saved, but rather, moved as objects into families of privilege—my own adoption an example of such.
In our adoptive families, there’s little-to-no room for our deep well of grief. From our perspective, many of our first mothers, to whom we have bonded, have died a terrible, inexplicable death. And yet, nobody around us will speak of her. If they do, their words are tinged with judgment and jealousy. Our brains respond by joining our parents in pushing down our grief—the very definition of depression. Add to that the constant flowing of adoptee microaggressions, pouring in frustration by the gallon, and eventually we’re overflowing with attacking energy.
We can feel alone in our feelings. We can feel alone in our families. We can feel alone in church. We can believe that if God’s been in on it from the start, we’re spiritually alone, too. Since it’s quite literally a matter of life or death to keep our adoptive families close, all our attacking energy goes inward. Suicide statistics suddenly make a lot of sense—but that doesn’t mean they’re okay.
Should we rise above our ideations and try to share our truths as adults, we’re often ghosted. Agents tell us, “Adoption books don’t sell.” Christian publishers echo similar sentiments, only to repeatedly publish misguided, uninformed adoption-based literature that props up an entire army of white Christian adoptive parents and authors. These people then amass huge followings by blasting pictures of their adoptees all over social media and podcasting about what should be private moments of their parenting for all to witness.
Nonadopted Christians get the pulpit when it comes to adoption. They run adoption groups at church. They speak at adoption conferences. They air commercials for big-business adoption agencies on Christian radio. They write adoption into unrealistic storylines for Hallmark movies and Christian fiction—inspiring more and more to praise adoption as sanctified work. Pitch a more holistic perspective as a Christian adoptee? I’ve been doing it for the last four years and can tell you that most Christians respond with rejection and silencing—tapping primal adoptee wounding that seeks to destroy and kill, yet again.
Adoptive parents can build platforms and careers off adoption, but adoptees who circumvent the system—usually offering their emotional labor at a great personal cost and for little to no financial reward—receive backlash. We are labeled as “angry” or “spiritually lost” adoptees, or we are discounted and dismissed because of a flawed assumption that any adoptee who speaks up had a “bad adoption.” (For the record, mine was very good.)
Our culture reflects the Christian faith—and sadly, both are on a flight from taking a close and realistic look at the mental health of adoptees. While psychotherapist Paul Sunderland says, “It’s hard to imagine a bigger trauma than loss of mother at the beginning of life,” and maternal loss in the first three years of life tops the list of Adverse Babyhood Experiences, it’s hard to find adoption even mentioned in any of today’s bestselling books on trauma. Understanding our brain’s naturally designed trauma responses through the recent rise in trauma literature is validating. But it’s further frustrating that their authors and publishers seem afraid of the Evangelical outcry that would result if the dynamics around adoption were named for the trauma that they inflict. Because adoption is so widespread in the Church, nearly every Christian working within a Christian institution has a friend, sister, brother, aunt, or other close connection who is an adoptive parent. They’d rather remain gatekeepers from the truth than hurt their loved ones or upset advertisers.
It’s been a sacrifice play, where the loudest, most privileged voices win. But if it’s killing adoptees in the process—whether spiritually or literally in suicide rates—is anyone really winning in the end? Where is the pro-life perspective on that?