• KAAN

It’s OK to Not Be OK: Navigating the Stressors of 2020 as a Community of Adoptees

Updated: Sep 21

by Nicole Sheppard, MA, LPCC

Photo by Lacie Slezak


[If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255]


Two years ago, I had the honor of delivering a keynote speech addressing mental health and suicide in our Korean adoptee community at the 2018 KAAN Conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Today, and in recognition of the 2020 Suicide Prevention Awareness Week (September 6-12th), this topic is, perhaps, more relevant than ever. This year, in 2020, we have struggled with and are continuing to live through a global pandemic, anti-Asian racism, and wrestling with racial unrest and the call for racial and social justice in the midst of a politically divisive environment during a presidential election year. All the while, through KAAN, and similar organizations, we are also concurrently striving to create and share ways to make sense of who we are individually, as families, and as a community connected by a shared global displacement from our Korean birth culture through transnational adoption.

Wow, we are dealing with and living through A LOT! Take a minute to let that settle in, give yourself space to validate your lived experience, and just breathe.

Now, prior to the current pandemic, past research from Sweden and the US, has already confirmed that adoptees are four times more likely to attempt or complete a suicide than non-adopted people due to a variety of risk factors, some of which are inherent in our various adoption experiences.


Since the beginning of the year, the pandemic’s impact has created stressors which affect our functioning and our mental, emotional, social, and physical well-being. Social isolation and even social distancing, while providing reduced risk of exposure to the illness, prevents us from engaging with important social supports, in our usual human ways. Loss of income through unemployment and furloughs contributes to housing instability, food insecurity, and uncertainty about basic needs. All of which may contribute to increased worry, stress, and anxiety.

Listen to Nicole Sheppard on the "Adopted Feels" Podcast


Even for those of who have fared better and are “lucky enough” to be able to maintain jobs and homes, having to adjust to this “new normal” while keeping you and your family safe, juggling childcare, home-schooling through distance learning, and doing full-time work from that same home has brought stressful challenges that we’re not escaping from anytime soon. So, it is not unusual to feel this stress in the form of low motivation, difficulty focusing and completing tasks, agitation in the body, racing thoughts, tension in our relationships with others in the household, increased irritability, lack of restful sleep, sadness, and perhaps hopelessness, to name just a few.


Numerous studies and articles, describe the increase in mental and emotional health concerns since the pandemic started. A study by Nirmita Panchal and colleagues (2020) described this increase in relation to unemployment, increased substance/alcohol use, and social isolation. In her article, Elizabeth Hlavinka (2020), reported that a survey by the Center for Disease Control (Czeisler, et. al, 2020), found that in addition to an increase of mental health issues, serious thoughts of suicide more than doubled (10.7% of 5470 respondents) in June 2020 compared to data (4.3%) from a similar survey completed around the same time in 2018. The same CDC survey found that the risk for suicidal ideation was elevated among respondents that identify as young adults (ages 18 to 25; 25.5%), Hispanics (18.6%), Black (15.1%), unpaid adult caregivers (30.7%), and essential workers (21.7%). It is important to note that just having elevated thoughts of death does not mean that suicide is inevitable. These are examples, however, of our minds and bodies reacting to an unprecedented stressor and this response is normal.

These increased symptoms are signs to take care of ourselves, and it is important that we have tools and healthy options to navigate these emotional stressors.

In our community, many of us have the outward appearance of being Asian-looking, despite how we may feel differently on the inside, being raised in largely White communities. As the Coronavirus pandemic originated from China, xenophobic reactions from non-Asian Americans has resulted in increased anti-Asian racism including more microaggressions to overt verbal abuse and even physical attacks upon us and people who look like us. This additional layer of anger, fear, and stress experienced by many Asian Americans in the middle of a pandemic impacts our mental and emotional health.


In a current study, Prof. Hyeouk Chris Hahm, a researcher at Boston University, has found that this anti-Asian discrimination relates to Post-traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms experienced by Asian American young adults (Hahm, 2020). As transnational adoptees, this anti-Asian racism may also remind us of past racism we experienced as children and spark additional confusion about who we are now, and how to grapple with how others see us. Further, many of us have had to become concerned about how to protect ourselves from these new aggressors that see us as the enemy—someone to blame and hate for the pandemic’s threat.


In the wake of the murder of George Floyd in late May, less than one mile from my own home in Minneapolis, MN, a ticking time bomb of people already afraid, stressed, and weary of months of social isolation, exploded upon the streets of Minneapolis and surrounding communities across our nation. For some, this call to action resulted in community organizing, active protesting, and physically congregating to express pain, rage, and anger. Still others demonstrated to push for change and healing needed in the Black community, all communities of color, and frankly, our national community, due to systemic and historical racism. For me, and many of the clients I see, I was struck by the trauma responses of shock, shutting down, fear, numbness, panic, and difficulty in re-establishing a sense of physical safety as we lived through weeks of escalating protests with some turning into physical aggression, looting, destruction of property, and fires burning down significant structures important to the communities they serve. Further, the unknown about what was happening and how “afraid” one should be, and “how long is this going to go on,” fueled this loss of a sense of safety.


Since the 2016 election, I have been a part of conversations in our adoption circles, and have heard many other adoptees struggling with family members who do not understand the implications of systemic racism. As racial minorities, calling out racist statements and behaviors by politicians as being unrepresentative of who we are, takes courage and a strong sense of self. Engaging in dialogue with family members can also be risky and scary if those relatives cannot see or understand what we are saying and experiencing. These interactions can bring up old wounds related to our adoptions, and a sense of “otherness” and not belonging, being unheard, or misunderstood.

Again, let me pause. In 2020 alone, we are living through A LOT! Take another minute to settle, give yourself even more space to once again validate YOUR lived experience, and breathe.

Despite the stressful era we are currently living through, there are ways for us to get support and find the help we need so that we do not struggle alone.


First, if you are struggling with thoughts of suicide or hurting yourself, get help now:

[If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or text “HOME” to 741741 to reach a crisis counselor.]


Virtual, or “telehealth” therapy is more accessible than ever, and in fact, is the currently preferred method to meet with a psychotherapist. Talking to a therapist can help you identify and process through the struggles you are experiencing. Additionally, group therapy options may be available to process and learn with others. I would recommend finding one that is adoption-competent, i.e., one that is trained in understanding the additional factors that contribute to your current experience.


Additionally, support groups (including 12-step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, Al-Anon, Narcotics Anonymous, or adoptee or adoptive family focused) are being offered virtually.

Connecting to communities virtually has become the norm in the era of COVID-19, since we cannot meet in-person. KAAN has done a wonderful job of providing virtual meet-ups in lieu of the annual conference. Other adoptee community organizations are offering similar on-line options. Locate your local organization to find what they offer. Additionally, there are many groups of Facebook or other social media for Korean adoptees.

KAAN: https://www.wearekaan.org/

AdopteeHub: https://www.adopteehub.org/events

Locate your local group(s): https://www.wearekaan.org/organizations-and-camps

In 2020, we are living through A LOT! Take yet another minute to pause, give yourself even more space to once again validate YOUR own lived experience, and breathe deeply.

I believe that we will get through all of these stressors. I also believe that we have been given the opportunity to do something different, to live differently. If you are reading this, know that you are not alone, AND that we cannot get through these turbulent times on our own. Reach out for help or connect with those that might be struggling. This is something that I hope is within your power and control. You don’t have to have all the answers, and frankly, no one does. You just have to give yourself a break when you need it, and also take things one day at a time, or one step at a time.


As a community, we will all get through this if we can continue to support each other and know that it is OK to not be OK right now.


References


Czeisler MÉ , Lane RI, Petrosky E, et al. Mental Health, Substance Use, and Suicidal Ideation During the COVID-19 Pandemic — United States, (2020, June 24–30). MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2020;69:1049–1057. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6932a1external icon.


Hahm, H.C. (2020, August). COVID-19 related-Anti-Asian Discrimination Predicts Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Among Asian American Young Adults. Session presented at the Inaugural National Summit for Korean American Mental Health Professionals of the Mustard Seed Generation, Boston, MA.


Hlavinka E., (2020, August 14). CDC Details COVID-19's Massive Mental Health Impact-Young adults, people of color, essential workers, and adult caregivers particularly affected. MedPage Today. https://www.medpagetoday.com/psychiatry/generalpsychiatry/88074


Panchal N., Kamal R., Orgera K., Cox C., Garfield R., Hamel L., Muñana C., and Chidambaram P. (2020, August 21). The Implications of COVID-19 for Mental Health and Substance Use. KFF. https://www.kff.org/coronavirus-covid-19/issue-brief/the-implications-of-covid-19-for-mental-health-and-substance-use/

Nicole Sheppard, MA, LPCC grew up in Minneapolis and lived in Seoul from 2002-2010. During her time in Korea, she was actively involved in adoptee community development and advocacy, and served as the Vice Secretary General of GOA’L for six years. After returning to the US, Nicole obtained her master’s degree in Counseling Psychology from the University of St. Thomas. She is also a graduate of the Permanency & Adoption Competency Certificate (PACC) training at the University of Minnesota, and Training for Adoption Competency (TAC) designed by the Center for Adoption Support and Education (C.A.S.E.). 

As a clinician, Nicole is based in the Twin Cities and specializes in mindfulness and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) for adolescents and adults at Mental Health Systems (MHS). Through the Korean Adoptees Ministry Center, she was the lead researcher of a Minnesota Department of Health-funded mental health and suicide assessment of the adult Korean adoptee community, which began in 2016. At the 2018 KAAN conference, Nicole presented the keynote address on this research, which you can watch on YouTube. Nicole enjoys being a mother, traveling, and yoga.

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