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The life-saving lesson suicidal people can teach a world in pandemic

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The life-saving lesson suicidal people can teach a world in pandemic

Trigger warning: This story explores suicide and includes details of self-harm. If you are at risk, please contact the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or the Crisis Text Line by texting 741741. You can also locate peer support resources at warmline.org. Jess Stohlmann-Rainey cries everyday. And it’s not when she’s feeling suicidal.On Monday, she cried because she…

The life-saving lesson suicidal people can teach a world in pandemic

Trigger warning: This story explores suicide and includes details of self-harm. If you are at risk, please contact the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or the Crisis Text Line by texting 741741. You can also locate peer support resources at warmline.org. 

Jess Stohlmann-Rainey cries everyday. And it’s not when she’s feeling suicidal.

On Monday, she cried because she woke up with hip pain, saw a one-eyed chihuahua and a video of bats swimming. She cried because she was so thankful for her husband Jon. She cried thinking about people she loves who killed themselves and those who wanted to but didn’t.

Jess cried because she had a nightmare where, in a twist of modern eugenics, anyone with a psychiatric history who caught COVID-19 was left to die. Another day she cried when a refrigerated truck pulled up to a Denver hospital and she wondered if it was for bodies.

During the pandemic, Jess, 34, who has attempted suicide twice and lives with chronic suicidal thoughts, sometimes struggles to ward off despair. Working toward a better world is how she keeps herself wanting to stay in it. But now that reimagining can feel achingly out of reach. 

Jess and her friend Dese'rae L. Stage gave each other matching

Jess and her friend Dese’rae L. Stage gave each other matching “sad” tattoos. Both work in suicide prevention and are suicide attempt survivors themselves.

Jess Stohlmann-Rainey

The pandemic has taken a toll on everyone, especially the millions of Americans who think seriously about suicide. Calls to suicide hotlines in some parts of the country have spiked. In March, when the stay-at-home directives began, the Crisis Text Line saw a 26% increase in text volume from the previous month.

Life stressors and recent or impending crises are known to contribute to suicide, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2018.

Many mental health professionals can’t conduct in-person appointments, and not all patients can access virtual therapy even when it’s offered. On social media, chronically suicidal people are sharing how fear, uncertainty and isolation are fueling their thoughts of dying.  

“Almost overnight, half the people I know lost their therapists,” said Jess, director of program development at Rocky Mountain Crisis Partners in Denver. “If you rely exclusively on that to get by, things are going to get really bad for people really quickly.”

There is some evidence that suicides increased in the U.S. during the 1918–19 influenza pandemic and among older people in Hong Kong during the 2003 SARS epidemic, The Lancet reported.

“We’re about to face all kinds of challenges that we already know are hard for people, but they’re going to come all at once,” Jess said. “Increasing poverty and houselessness, increasing difficulties accessing health care. … Basically everything that’s a social risk factor for anything is crashing down on us right now. If you don’t have a network for supporting yourself, I don’t know how people will survive it.” 

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The pandemic has revealed what many suicidal people know and others may have taken for granted: human connection is life-saving. 

Jess is alive, in part, because her life is threaded to others. Her sister, her friends, her fellow survivors – these are the people who love her, listen to her, validate her and make space for the heavy and sometimes terrifying without devolving into terror themselves. They do not judge her or hold her worst moments against her. They are the ones who know why she cries. 

Jess Stohlmann-Rainey
Basically everything that’s a social risk factor for anything is crashing down on us right now. If you don’t have a network for supporting yourself, I don’t know how people will survive it.

This is a look at Jess’s support network. This is how she and her peers – people who have struggled with suicide – survive:

In September, Jess cried because her sister Jenny was visiting and she was so happy she was there. She cried when Jenny left. 

It was the last time they saw each other before the crisis began. They don’t know when they might see each other again.

“I miss her,” Jenny said.

They talk on the phone most weeks, and the conversations are long. Sometimes they text, but more often they’re on Instagram sharing animal memes.

Jenny is not the person with whom Jess shares her most intense suicidal thoughts. Jenny is the person she reaches for to talk about everything else. She’s the one who knows her fully. Perhaps knows her best. 

Jenny bore witness to some of Jess’s worst years. Jess began to hear distinct voices in middle school, telling her if things got too hard there was a way out. She was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia, which carries a heightened risk of suicide. 

“When they were little, they were very close,” said their mother Sue Stohlmann. “In the crisis years, it was in and out. Partly both being teenagers, partly not understanding what was happening with each other.”

family photo

“As she got older, she became distant in a lot of ways, which was challenging for me as her sister in a house where we loved each other,” Jenny said. 

Jenny remembers the wounds on Jess’s body — the self-inflicted cuts and burns. She remembers the time she attempted suicide at school, and the hospitalization after.

Jess made two serious suicide attempts in high school.

“There was this sort of closeness I had with death in that period, where it was just more compelling than being alive,” she said.

Jenny wanted to help her sister. Back then, she didn’t know how. A few years after Jess left, when Jenny was a senior in high school, she experienced her own crisis – worry about her sister loomed, there was financial stress at home, she was over-committed at school and a fellow student killed himself in September. 

Sisters Jenny, left, and JessSisters Jenny, left, and Jess; Family photo

Jenny Stohlmann
I think from around when I was 10 and she was maybe like 13, I think Jess’s life experience changed drastically. … She was having all of these experiences that I was totally unaware of. I think we had a lot of emotional closeness even if there were things in her life that she wasn’t sharing.

Take action: If you’ve ever had suicidal thoughts, make a safety plan

On the last day of Thanksgiving break, Jenny made her own suicide attempt.

“Everybody around me was in crisis and it felt like, ‘Wow, life is really, really hard,’” she said. “For a long time I didn’t even consider it a suicide attempt. I wasn’t really trying to die, I was just trying to figure out if I wanted to live.”

A 2016 study in the American Sociological Review showed characteristics of communities can contribute to teen suicide clusters. 

Jess and Jenny are bonded not only through shared history but also through a common experience of suicide that is, for each, deeply particular. Jess was trying to end her life when she made her attempt, and she’s thought about dying many times since. Jenny wasn’t sure what she wanted, but the attempt clarified death was not it.

As adults, they’ve worked to unravel these differences, to move through grief, resentment and mistrust. On one of Jenny’s visits to Jess at college, Jess gave her a poem.

Jess wrote Jenny this poem when she was in college.

Jess wrote Jenny this poem when she was in college.

Jenny Stohlman

“I know she depends on me, too,” it read. “We are sisters. After all.”

“I remember thinking about the poem as a symbol of the way we were united beyond being born to the same family … that she had empathy for me,” Jenny said.

During these uncertain times, Jenny knows she can’t take Jess’s pain away, so she doesn’t try. Instead, she simply listens.

“She’s someone who just understands me,” Jess said. “I feel like she has probably the biggest picture of anyone. I always feel compelled to call and just talk about my life. And I always want to know what’s happening with her.  … I trust her implicitly.”

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