2017-06-05 18:28
Adoptees struggle to find mental aid
Flowers sent by adoptee support organizations are lined up in commemoration of Phillip Clay, a deported adoptee. His funeral was held at Myongji University Hospital, Goyang, Gyeonggi Province, after his alleged suicide on May 21. / Courtesy of Simone Eun Mi

By You Soo-sun

Adoptees struggle to find mental assistance in Korea, where it is practically nonexistent for those who have returned to their birth country after spending decades overseas. The lack of attention has allegedly led to dramatic results in the last two weeks ― one deported adoptee, Phillip Clay, committed suicide, May 21; another is locked up at a detention center in Seoul awaiting his trial set for Friday. Both suffered from mental anxiety and other problems that were not adequately addressed.

The cases of these two adoptees bring to light the failures of the existent system in meeting their diverse needs. Korea Adoption Services, an organization directly under the Ministry of Health and Welfare, has worked with both of these men, but says it is extremely difficult to assist them under the current system.

While adoptees have sought out medical assistance, their needs have largely been unnoticed or ignored.

Helen Ko began working for Korea Adoption Services just last year, becoming the first caseworker at the organization to assist adoptees directly.

But she found it extremely challenging to find the services they require. Even the systems that are in place in the nation are not readily available for use by adoptees. The language barrier is especially problematic.

 “Even among minority groups, adoptees are the least powerful,” said Ko.    

As a community lacking power in size and resources, their needs have gone unmet.

Adoption has damaging consequences in general. Adoptees face a higher likelihood to commit or attempt suicide and are more susceptible to other problems such as alcohol abuse, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and psychiatric hospitalization according to Global Overseas Adoptees' Link (G.O.A’.L) which referenced a number of studies from Sweden.

In addition, returning to Korea may cause additional anxieties due to culture shock, language barriers, as well as a new layer of identity crisis.

“We look Korean but we are not. We are foreigners but we are not,” said AK Salling, secretary at G.O.A'.L.

Salling explained getting to know the truth about their backgrounds, meeting their birth families and finding out old family secrets may also lead adoptees to re-question their identities.

Salling added that there is also “pressure to get Koreanized fast” and “pressure to learn Korean fast” leading to low self-esteem.

The problem is much more severe for deported Korean American adoptees as they often come unprepared for a completely new environment.

“It was a total shock,” said Monte Haines, 46, who was adopted in Iowa in 1978 but deported back to Korea in 2009.

When he came, he said “there was nothing at all.”

“No one was there to pick me up at the airport. I wandered around the streets for a few weeks with only like 20 dollars on me,” Haines said, reflecting on the days when he first arrived in Korea.

Even after eight years, he still struggles. 

“Adjust? No… I’m just trying to survive,” he said when asked about how he’s been adjusting to his new life in Korea.

“It’s getting difficult,” he said, sighing.


Related story