Medically reviewed by Vicky Davis, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 11/9/2022
Adoption is a rewarding — and often complicated — choice. While Hollywood tends to paint a rosy picture of the experience, the fact is that struggling physically and emotionally as an adoptive parent is a common experience. Anxiety, grief, frustration and conditions including post-adoption depression are completely normal.
In fact, these experiences are arguably similar to ones felt by struggling biological parents after birth.
If you or a loved one is feeling these feelings right now, understand that you’re not alone, and you haven’t done anything wrong. You’re just experiencing symptoms of a not-as-well-known form of mood disorder called post-adoption depression.
Post-adoption depression, sometimes called post-adoption depression syndrome, is a depressive disorder that occurs in parents after adopting a child.
Post-adoption depression is a little more than a sense of “post-adoption blues.”
It has similar features to depression in postpartum mothers — it’s a result of the early emotional struggles that come with the responsibilities of being a new parent and forging a new relationship with a new child.
These may include unmet expectations or other feelings of inadequacy or fear as an adoptive parent enters a new chapter in their life.
Data is a little scarce on the details of post-adoption depression, in part because a lot of the research done on adoptive parents and adopted children has, in the past, concluded at the point of adoption.
For instance, postpartum rates of depression occur in between 10 percent and 15 percent of new mothers. But the data is far less substantial on adoptive parents, and studies have shown a somewhat wide variation in results.
A review of current literature surmised that post-adoption depression could be present in between eight percent and 32 percent of the adoptive population, though many of those studies were of small groups or represented a wide variety of controls.
So, why the potentially high numbers? It has to do with a lack of research.
There’s a lot of inequality when it comes to the attention paid to the mental health of biological versus adoptive parents.
Hundreds of studies about birth parents’ adjustment to parenthood have examined mental health, but few have looked at adoptive parents beyond the prospective parent phase.
Part of this may be due to assumptions about mental health.
For instance, we know that new biological mothers experience a variety of increased risk factors for mental illness — depression can be brought on by hormonal changes, the trauma of delivery complications and the stresses of life as a new parent.
Adoptive parents also face challenges in the building of adoptive families — things like infertility and the disappointment that comes with the inability to conceive may still cause grief in some parents, even as they adopt.
Additionally, parents’ mental health is actually crucial for children.
Numerous studies have shown that if you’re depressed as a parent, there’s a potential increase in the risk factor for, or the prevalence of, depression and depressed mood for your kids — biological or otherwise.
For adoptive mothers, the depressive symptoms they exhibit and leave untreated can predict similar changes down the road in the mental health and well-being of children.
The correlation gets worse, though. Research has shown that a child’s depression severity is likely to increase similarly to the relative severity of their parents’ depression.
Luckily, the reverse of all of this seems to be true, as well — parents who are educated on mental health issues and seek treatment will not only be able to recognize signs in their children, but will be able to guide them, help reduce the impact of mental health stigma and support them during treatment (if need be).
Parents can even support their adoptive children this way while depressed themselves, as long as they’re seeking treatment and are depression literate.
Getting help with depression is a process, not a to-do list item. And it may take some time to find the proper treatment or treatments to help you manage your symptoms of depression.
It’s best to think about treatment options in three categories:
Medication is one of the most common therapies available today, and there’s a good reason: antidepressants are effective.
These medications are believed to work by affecting your brain chemistry. Specific antidepressants — like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs — do this by regulating the serotonin levels in your brain.
Talk to a healthcare provider if you’re feeling down, depressed or otherwise not yourself, as these medications may offer the relief you need alongside other treatments.
Sure, it’s hard to imagine carving out additional time from your already too-busy week, but therapy and the support of a mental health professional can make a world of difference in your life.
In most cases, a person suffering from depression will benefit from techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which in simplest terms is really just a practice of learning to ignore, refute and control depressive thought patterns.
The voice in your head saying you’re not a good mother? That’s depression talking — not reality.
CBT is one way to combat these feelings, though evidence shows meditation and similar mindfulness practices can be effective too.
When you speak to a mental health professional, they may recommend other types of therapy, too, so make an appointment and find out what best suits your unique needs.
It can be a struggle to keep up with the demands of parenting, so it’s fairly common for new parents to sidetrack self-care.
It’s important to keep up with the things that keep you happy, balanced and healthy though, as they can affect your mental health. Lifestyle changes that can increase your risk of depression include weight gain, lack of exercise, non-nutritious diet and habits like drinking and smoking.
A healthcare professional might recommend that you improve your diet, , incorporate mindfulness techniques and make time for other self-care practices including journaling, spending time with friends and even getting a massage! And don’t skip exercise as that alone has been shown to be as effective as medication for depression treatment.
Your main takeaway here is this: post-adoption depression is valid.
While the majority of research in the area typically either focuses on depression leading up to adoption or doesn’t focus on the mental well-being of new adoptive parents at all, it’s absolutely a real thing, and you aren’t alone.
If you, a friend or loved one is experiencing symptoms of post-adoption depression, your focus right now should be on supporting your mental health. Ask for support from your partner, your family and from a professional.
If you speak to a mental health professional, they may recommend anything from medications like SSRIs, to therapy, healthy lifestyle changes and more.
Which brings us to your other main takeaway, which is this: post-adoption depression is manageable. We know it can feel hopeless sometimes, but understand that your family is worth fighting for.
If you’re looking for next steps, it may be time to start a consultation with a licensed mental health professional. They’ll be able to help you figure out what direction you should head in next.
Just know that you are not alone and your feelings are completely valid — post-adoption depression isn’t a weakness, and with proper interventions, you can begin to feel better.