' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: Adoption and Mental Illness: The facts ain't pretty

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Adoption and Mental Illness: The facts ain't pretty


Adoption and Mental Illness

Arline Kaplan

Does adoption pose psychological risks? University of Minnesota researchers revisited this controversial issue recently and found that common DSM-IV childhood disorders are more prevalent in adoptees than nonadoptees.1 They also found that adoptees are more likely to have contact with mental health professionals.

The mental health of adoptees has become an increasingly important issue as the number of adoptions in the United States continues to rise. According to the National Council For Adoption,1 there were 130,269 domestic adoptions and 21,063 intercountry adoptions in 2002. (In 1996 there were 108,463 domestic adoptions and 11,303 intercountry adoptions.) US Census figures in 2000 indicated that nearly 1.6 million children and teenagers under 18 years in the US and Puerto Rico are adopted.2

The adoption study compared a random sample of 540 adolescents born in Minnesota, who were not adopted, with a representative sample of adoptees (514 international adoptees and 178 domestic adoptees). The children had been placed by the 3 largest adoption agencies in Minnesota.3

“All of the kids were adopted within the first 2 years of life, but the great majority were adopted within the first year,” said Margaret A. Keyes, PhD, lead author of the study and a research psychologist. “The average age at placement was 4 months. So it is not as if you are looking at 3- and 4-year-olds coming over on a plane from a faraway country.”

At the time of the assessments, the study participants ranged in age from 11 to 21 years. The assessments were rigorous and involved use of the Diagnostic Interview for Children and Adolescents-Revised (DICA-R) and the Structured Clinical Interview for DSM-III-R (SCID-II). (Both had been updated to cover DSM-IV criteria.) The modified DICA-R was also administered to mothers of participants to assess disorders in their children.

Disorders assessed over the lifetime of the adoptees included oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), conduct disorder, major depressive disorder, and separation anxiety disorder.

Because of its design, the study makes a major contribution to the medical literature, Keyes told Psychiatric Times. It is one of the first to investigate the prevalence of common DSM-IV childhood disorders in a population-based sample of adopted adolescents. In addition, it improved on the methodology of prior studies.

While previous studies had relied extensively on parent reports and checklist descriptions of problems the kids had, Keyes said, “We had parents and children come into our laboratory at the University of Minnesota and complete individual clinical interviews . . . then we also collected teacher reports.” Two individuals with advanced clinical training reviewed the interviews, according to Keyes, and “they had to come to consensus about every single symptom. That information was then entered into the computer, and the diagnoses were assigned by computer algorithms.”

The odds of having ADHD or ODD were about twice as high in all adopted adolescents. For example, Keyes said, 7 to 8 out of 100 nonadopted adolescents had ADHD compared with 14 to 15 out of 100 of the adoptees. In addition, domestic adoptees had higher odds of having conduct disorder than nonadopted adolescents. Consistent with a meta-analysis by Juffer and van Ijzendoorn,4 the University of Minnesota researchers found that international adoptees had fewer externalizing behavioral problems than domestic adoptees. This finding is somewhat provocative, because some researchers5 have speculated that international adoptees would be at increased risk for mental health problems because they are more likely to have been placed in the adoptive home at a later age, to have experienced preplacement adversity, or to have been exposed to postplacement discrimination.

In contrast, Juffer and van Ijzendoorn (authors of the meta-analysis) suggested that adoptive parents of international adoptees may be better prepared to rear an adopted child than the adoptive parents of domestic adoptees. They also suggested that domestic adoptees may experience greater prenatal exposure to teratogenic substances or have a greater genetic risk for mental health problems than international adoptees.

International adoptees were significantly more anxious than nonadopted adolescents and, according to their parents, had significantly more symptoms of major depressive and separation anxiety disorders.

Despite the study’s findings, Keyes emphasized that most of the children adopted as infants are well-adjusted and psychologically healthy.

“That point gets lost in a discussion of a paper like this,” she said.

Mental health contacts

The adoption study also found that all adopted adolescents were significantly more likely to have had contact with a mental health professional than nonadoptees. “We have known for a long time that adoptees are over-represented in mental health settings,” Keyes said. “One hypothesis is that it relates to referral bias—that adopted parents on average have greater economic resources, are a little bit better educated, and have experience with social services agencies through the process of adopting, so they are more likely to refer their kids to a mental health setting.

Now, we think that at least part of that over-representation is due to the fact that the adoptees are experiencing more of the kinds of behavioral problems for which parents refer their kids.

1. National Council For Adoption. Adoption Factbook IV. Sterling, Va.: National Council For Adoption; 2007.
2. Kreider RM. Adopted Children and Stepchildren: 2000. US Census Bureau. Issued October 2003. www.census.gov/prod/2003pubs/censr-6.pdf. Accessed October 6, 2008.
3. Keyes MA, Sharma A, Elkins IJ, et al. The mental health of US adolescents adopted in infancy. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2008;162:419-425.
4. Juffer F, van Ijzendoorn MH. Behavior problems and mental health referrals of international adoptees: a meta-analysis. JAMA. 2005;293:2501-2515.
5. Hjern A, Lindblad F, Vinnerljung B. Suicide, psychiatric illness, and social maladjustment in intercountry adoptees in Sweden: a cohort study. Lancet. 2002; 360:443-448.

*by none other than Elizabeth Bartholet, adopter of two from Peru and someone who continually espouses adopting from poor nations as a way to...god knows what. And remember, she is the keynote speaker at the March 6, 2009 Center for Adoption Policy conference at New York University. Also on the panel is the woman who wrote the Uniform Adoption Act several years ago that included the provision that adoptee birth records be sealed for 99 years, Joan Hollinger. On final note, they both signed an amicus brief in the Schmidt/DeBoer court fight over Anna...for keeping the child with the prospective adopters, the DeBoers. Parents for Ethical Adoption Reform plan to attend. Anyone interested in an alternative point of view ought to contact them here. Email: reform@PEAR-now.org.

Just a note here: A few years ago friends of ours were having trouble with their (natural-born) son in his teenage years, and eventually sent him to a school for troubled kids. When I checked the website, a special note was made that the school specifically had programs to deal with adoption issues....Yes, many adopted kids do not evince mental-health issues out of the norm, but the evidence is there: a statistical number do. And while an acknowledgment of their specialness can not cure all, keeping anyone's birth background from them can only exacerbate whatever problems are there.


  1. A valuable article. I'm wondering if the reason that children adopted from foreign countries show fewer problems than domestically-adopted children isn't because the preponderance of foreign adoptees are girls from South Korea and China. Girls in general have lower arrest rates, less drug use, and so on. Asian girls are often selected for adoption precisely because they are perceived to be docile.

    Does anyone know how Elizabeth Bartholet's adopted sons are doing?

    The adopted child syndrome was recognized by the general public before B. J. Lifton coined the term. When I was a child in the 1950's, Billy who was four or five years old lived next door. He became easily enraged, screaming, kicking, and throwing things at people. I heard adults attribute his behavior to his being adopted. When I was a student teacher in 1963, one of my students George had severe ADHD although it wasn't called that then. The supervising teacher explained George's behavior by saying he was adopted.

  2. Still, I wonder... would my son have the problems he has if I had raised him? At least then I might have seen them early, known where they came from. As it is, I can't be sure if it was adoption, the environment he grew up in, or something genetic.

    Thank goodness I have released my guilt before learning this...



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