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

Updated: Sep 21, 2020

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.

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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.