Adoption is quite common. Data reports that one of every 40 kids in the US is adopted. And parents who are going through the process of adoption can be vulnerable to the same emotional changes as those going through a biological pregnancy and postpartum period. Yet, little research exists into the mental health of adoptive parents in the post-adoption period.
How common is depression after adoption? The studies show wide range, likely because the samples are small, anywhere from 8-32%. The transition to parenthood, whether through pregnancy or adoption, is not easy, and road for adoptive parents has several unique challenges.
The process of adoption can lead to emotional unease
Going through the process of adoption is a lengthy and emotionally taxing endeavor. There is often uncertainty, a roller coaster of hopes and disappointments, and financial stress. Initial expectations of a prospective adoptive couple may not be consistent with realities, and confronting this can lead to distress.
One reason some couples choose adoption is due to problems with fertility. Infertility comes with a host of potential mental health consequences (see article on Emotional Issues of Infertility). Additionally, the process involves having an agency put one’s ability to parent under a microscope, and that kind of judgement and observation can be challenging for some.
Unique factors in adoption
One interesting, small study from Israel in 2009 found that the rates of depression of mother prior to adoption was about 25% and decreased to 15% after adoption. We can make hypotheses about why this might be, including that the lack of a child, the process of adoption, or a prolonged infertility period all contributed to the initial symptoms and improved dramatically after resolution.
Another study noted a high rate of post-adoption depression, about 28%, but also noted that about 22% of the children in this group has special needs. Certainly, the additional emotional, time, and financial resources that are needed to raise a child with special needs can contribute to a strain on mental health.
Consequences of depression in adoptive parents
The process of adoption and its unique factors can predispose a new parent to depression, which has consequences on both parents and child. For example, studies show that among adoptive parents who struggle with depression, the adopted children have a much higher risk of externalizing behaviors as toddlers and major depression and behavior disorders once they are adolescents.
Recommendations for adoptive parents
Based on the above information, we can conclude that just because there is not the biological and hormonal impact that pregnancy adds to new parenthood, does not mean that depression is unlikely. Therefore, it is important to be mindful of mood both during the process of adoption and afterwards. If you are noticing symptoms that could be depression (including irritability, difficulty sleeping, loss of enjoyment, feeling of guilt, hopelessness, social withdrawal, loss of energy) it is important to reach out for help. Potential resources include the counselors available through an adoption agency or referrals provided by the adopted child’s new pediatrician.
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Payne, J.L. et. al. Post adoption depression. Arch Womens Ment Health (2010) 13: 147-151.
Senecky, Y. et. al. Post-adoption depression among adoptive mothers. Journal of Affective Disorders (2009) 115: 62-68.
Foli, K.J. et. al. Post-adoption depression: Parental classes of depressive symptoms across time. Journal of Affective Disorders (2016) 200: 293-302.