Suicide and the Foster Child

In 1962, under a bridge, in the back seat of a neighbor’s car, a tiny, feisty baby girl came into this world. A fragile little baby so tiny, that she was kept in a shoe box.

By the time this little girl was five years old she had suffered more pain, more loss, more devastation, and more trauma than most people endure over a life time.

By the time this little girl was 10 years old, her childhood had been so traumatic that she was on the verge of a total and complete mental breakdown. At 17, I found myself on the edge of my bed with a handful of sleeping pills. I sat crying, saying to myself:

No one wants me, no one loves me and I can’t trust anyone. God hates me, man hates me and my entire life has been nothing but pain and devastation. So why even go on?

It was three weeks before I was to age out of a system that had forgotten about me.

I tried for many years to overcome my past, and I thought I had by focusing forward, 24-7, and never looking back. However, in my adult life, I found this wasn’t the case, and I had no choice but to finally face the monster head on.

To my amazement, it has been in sharing my pain that I have experienced the greatest healing. I have come to realize, that although I thought I had dealt with my pain by pretending it didn’t exist, it was quietly controlling everything about me. And thus, I would find myself contemplating suicide on more than one occasion.

My older sister, now passed, spoke of contemplating suicide. My other sister took a handful of pills while in care, and my brother has tried to commit suicide several times already. I have heard children in care talk about having suicidal thoughts on more than one occasion.

The World Health Organization says suicide is a leading cause of death worldwide, and one of the three leading causes of death for young people under 25. They report that one million people die by suicide each year. That comes to around 3,000 deaths a day or one death every 40 seconds.

In the past 45 years, the WHO says, suicide rates have increased by 60 percent worldwide and it predicts these deaths will rise to 1.5 million per year by 2020.

The worldwide statistics, of course, do not address the difference between suicides of foster children and suicides of other American children. But plenty of other studies have done exactly that:

• Adolescents who had been in foster care were nearly two and a half times more likely to seriously consider suicide than other youth (Pilowsky & Wu, 2006).
• Adolescents who had been in foster care were nearly four times more likely to have attempted suicide than other youth (Pilowsky & Wu, 2006).
• Experiencing childhood abuse or trauma increased the risk of attempted suicide 2- to 5-fold (Dube et al., 2001).
• Among 8-year-olds who were maltreated or at risk for maltreatment, nearly 10% reported wanting to kill themselves (Thompson, 2005).
• Adverse childhood experiences play a major role in suicide attempts. One study found that approximately two thirds of suicide attempts may be attributable to abusive or traumatic childhood experiences (Dube et al., 2001).

Suicide is a real issue in foster care and one we should not dismiss lightly. This is not a matter we are willing to discuss until we read stories of foster children like Gabriel Myers, a seven-year-old Florida boy who hung himself in his foster parent’s house.

Foster children can benefit from programs that bring together other like-minded children where they can share their pain, share their stories and heal from the inside out. If such programs existed, and were led by foster alumni, this would aid them even more of ridding themselves of turmoil that can often become debilitating.

There are few, if any programs encouraging the foster child to rid themselves of the pain and darkness that often consumes their lives outside of a therapeutic setting.

As a child who grew up in a brutally abusive home, I was suicidal before care. Never having a venue to talk about it in care made me even more suicidal. I think we will find better emotional outcomes when we give our foster children a safe place to talk about their abuse, their foster care lives, and other issues facing them as children in care, in addition to the typical therapy setting.

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About Helen Ramaglia 18 Articles
Helen Ramaglia is a foster alumni who became a foster/adoptive parent. She is the founder and Director of Fostering Superstars, a Congressional Award Winner for her work with foster children and is the author of “From Foster to Fabulous”. She is a popular speaker, trainer and advocate for foster children.

3 Comments

  1. Well said, Helen! Is it any wonder that so many of us contemplate, attempt or succeed at committing suicide, when our lowly lot in life leads us to confusion and anguish? Why is it that the child welfare system largely neglects our mental health needs? Alumni need to do something about this important issue, or continue to lose brothers and sisters to unresolved psychological problems.

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