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Adopted adolescents more likely to attempt suicide, study finds

September 17, 2013|By Emily Alpert

Adopted adolescents are at higher risk of attempting suicide, according to a recently released study published in the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

However, University of Minnesota research psychologist Margaret Keyes emphasized that the majority of adoptees they studied were “psychologically healthy.”

“We feel there’s no reason to be alarmed by these findings,” Keyes said. Instead, she said that the study results could be useful for clinicians treating adopted people who already show other signs that they are at risk.

“It’s something to be aware of if a young person is exhibiting other risk factors,” she said.

The new findings were based on a University of Minnesota study that surveyed more than 1,200 people between 1998 and 2008. In that study, researchers asked parents and their adolescent children if the child had ever tried to commit suicide. The average age of the adolescents ranged from roughly 15 to 18 over the course of the study.

Researchers then analyzed whether adoptees were at higher risk than other adolescents. The study found that 8.6% of adopted girls were reported to have attempted suicide, compared with 1.8% of girls who were not adopted. Adopted boys (5.4%) were also more likely than other boys (1.7%) to have tried to kill themselves, the study found.

The study also found that adopted children were more likely to have other problems tied to suicidal behavior, such as substance abuse or being disengaged at school. However, even when those factors were taken into account, adoptees were at higher risk of a suicide attempt.

The results echo earlier research from Sweden. The reasons that adopted teens face bigger risks are still unclear: Researchers have theorized that adopted children have higher “heritable risks” for suicide because their biological parents were more likely to suffer from psychiatric illness and suicidal behavior. Trauma early in life might also add to those risks.

Struggles with cultural identity have also been suggested as a possible stressor for children adopted internationally. Unlike the Swedish study, however, Keyes and her fellow researchers did not find a significant difference in suicide risks facing people adopted domestically and those adopted abroad.

Keyes said she and other researchers are continuing to study the same group of people as they enter adulthood, to see if the increased risks facing them as adolescents fade as they age.

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