A few months ago, we got a call. Our daughters’ birth mother had ended her life.

I felt devastated. She and I had exchanged messages via Facebook only a few days before, after a year of hearing nothing from her. She seemed very positive in her messages to me and the conversation ended with:

Her: “Give them (our girls) my love and I will call as soon as possible. And tell them I can’t wait to see them again, please and thank you.”

Me: “I will let them know. They really do think of you a lot and pray for you.”

Six days later, the call came.

So many questions came to my mind:

“Did I say something that hurt her?”

“Was there something I could have done to help her?”

“Do I share this information with my kids?”

“Was her death in any way related to adoption?”

“My daughters are so much like her. Will they follow in her footsteps?”

There is loss in adoption for all involved in the process. The adoptive parents lose the ability to raise children with the same genetic make-up that they understand. The birth parents lose the ability to parent their biological offspring. The adoptee loses a sense of identity and medical history. Does this loss add a suicide risk factor?

According to a study completed over a 10-year period, it was found that children who were adopted were four times more likely to attempt suicide than their peers who were not adopted.

September is National Suicide Prevention Month, a time set aside to talk about it. Educate about it. Suicide is a topic we need to discuss even though it can be painful. What are the risk factors? What can we do to reduce the risks?

According to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, the following are risk factors for suicide:

I have added an asterisk to six factors I believe are significant to adoption and loss.

  • Mental disorders, particularly mood disorders, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, and certain personality disorders*
  • Alcohol and other substance use disorders
  • Hopelessness*
  • Impulsive and/or aggressive tendencies
  • History of trauma or abuse*
  • Major physical illnesses
  • Previous suicide attempt
  • Family history of suicide
  • Job or financial loss
  • Loss of relationship*
  • Easy access to lethal means
  • Local clusters of suicide
  • Lack of social support and sense of isolation*
  • Stigma associated with asking for help*
  • Lack of healthcare, especially mental health and substance abuse treatment
  • Cultural and religious beliefs, such as the belief that suicide is a noble resolution of a personal dilemma
  • Exposure to others who have died by suicide (in real life or via the media and Internet)

Protective factors are characteristics that make it less likely that individuals will consider, attempt, or die by suicide. Protective factors are the things we can do as parents, associates, or friends to help someone at risk.

As adoptive parents, there are opportunities to provide protective factors to our children:

1. Mental disorders, particularly mood disorders, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders and certain personality disorders

We don’t always have a full history of our children’s biological parents. If we don’t realize there is a history of mental illness, we may not be as proactive in seeking treatment.

2. Hopelessness

Talk about adoption openly. Let your children know their birth and adoption story. If possible, allow them to communicate with birth family. Knowing who they are and where they started will help them develop their identity. Help them see their potential. Always show them how much you love them and how many people love and care about them.

3. History of trauma or abuse

Many children were adopted because they were removed from a situation of trauma or abuse. Don’t turn a blind eye to their past. Their past is a part of who they are and who they become. Get help. Find a professional who knows about trauma. The Connected Child by Karyn B. Purvis is a great resource for parenting children who come from trauma.

4. Loss of relationship

Adoption is loss. I know this may offend some adoptive parents who believe they are giving their child everything. I’m not saying you are not significant in your child’s life. I’m not saying you are not doing enough. I am saying that recognizing loss will help you understand your child and will help your child feel comfortable talking with you about tough subjects. Even if your child was adopted from birth and has a great sense of you as their parent, it is still natural for them to wonder about what a relationship with their biological parents would have been like.

5. Lack of social support and sense of isolation

Get involved in an adoption community. Help your child meet and associate with others who were adopted. Open adoption, if possible, can also help eliminate the feeling of isolation because your children know who they look like and have opportunities to be around someone who shares their physical traits.

6. Stigma associated with asking for help

If there is a stigma associated with talking about the painful parts of adoption in the home, will your children feel safe talking to you about their feelings? A strong connection to family is one of the protective factors for suicide risk. This strong connection comes from listening to and not getting defensive in conversations, especially the tough ones.

I will always wonder if I could have helped our children’s birth mother more. I know there were many factors in her decision to end her life and many of them had nothing to do with adoption. But, I know she loved her daughters and wished her life was in order so she could have a better relationship with them.

Maureen McCauley Evans, M.A., adoption worker and adoptive mother said, “Talking about suicide is hard and uncomfortable. Talking about it in connection with adoption––which often has much joy but is more complex than people realize–is challenging.”

For more information on the link between higher suicide rates and adoption, read Ms. Evan’s article, Understanding Why Adoptees Are at Higher Risk for Suicide.