Over 98,000 adoptions have taken place in Scotland. Counting back 18 years from now to 2000 at which point there was 90,000 adoptions and the children of those adoptions are now adults, some 450,000 people – adopted, adoptive parents, birth parents – have a direct connection with adoption.
This amounts to 10 per cent of the Scottish adult population (4,502,584 – https://www.gov.scot/Topics/People/Equality/Equalities/DataGrid/Age/AgePopMig). Using a conservative estimate, if we take Edinburgh as an example, we suggest that 48,000 residents of Edinburgh will have a direct connection with adoption. The same calculation can be applied throughout the country.
We know that over the course of lifetimes the well-being and mental health of many, if not most of these people, will benefit from access to a counsellor. What are their specific needs?
Curiosity about origins is a well-evidenced need that often requires help in being resolved. Beyond curiosity, the most common reasons given for searching for birth parents include ‘getting information about me to help complete the jigsaw’. It is also important for adopted people to know not only the details of their biological heritage, but to explore the question of why they were adopted. More practical reasons include the lack of genetic and medical history, as well as other family information. Plus it is known that adopted people who are not curious about their origins may still have a need for advice and support.
At the point of contact, people often need skilled help. The unexpected communication from a son or daughter adopted out many years ago may be longed-for yet can be a considerable ‘bombshell’ and reanimate feelings of loss and grief. Equally, contact from a birth parent can be highly unsettling. Here, all parties need help in adjusting. In the longer term we know that people may need access to counselling over a period of years and not just at the point of contact.
Birth mothers need help with the persistence of grief and undimmed desire to know of their adopted children. A recent study by the Australian Institute of Family Studies involving over 500 birth mothers concluded that there was a “higher than average” likelihood of birth mothers suffering from a mental health disorder compared to the general population; that “close to one-third of the mothers showed a likelihood of having a severe mental disorder” at the time of the study, and that “over half had symptoms that indicated the likelihood of having post-traumatic stress disorder”. The little we know of the birth father experience suggests many similarities of experience between birth mothers and birth fathers. These include: continuing to mourn the loss of their child throughout their lifetime, tracking the milestones of their child’s life by imagining birthday parties, first days of school, graduation, and more. Attention has also been drawn to feelings of guilt and shame regarding the adoption.
There is a growing awareness of the needs of other birth relatives such as siblings. As birth parents grow old and die, it is more likely that siblings may be the only living connection with family of origin. The establishment of these “horizontal” relationships is not straightforward and expert help can be useful in establishing these.
Adoptive parents need a service that understands that the parenting they have done and do is of value and that adoption brings with it specific and unique challenges, many of which are about how to acknowledge the importance of roots with their son or daughter and how to support them should they wish to trace their birth parents.
Adoptive parents can experience a range of emotions when their adopted son or daughter begins to search for information or actively seeks contact with birth family members. Neglect is a powerful one, with most after-adoption services geared up to support the adopted adult and the birth mother. Anxiety that they may be replaced as parents is also present. Research tells us that the overwhelming emotion was that of fear of losing their child and attendant emotions such as self-doubt.
In addition, much has been written about the long-term difficulties experienced by the many people who have spent time in care institutions and we in Birthlink are helping access their case files and make sense of them. This work is hugely helpful, and we have found it needs highly sensitive skills. This group of people would also access the benefits of our planned counselling centre.
A Counselling Service for Adults affected by Adoption? We think so.
Dr Gary Clapton on behalf of Birthlink