This story is part two of a series on long COVID that highlights the experiences of Black survivors of this virus who now advocate for equitable medical care and help fellow long COVID-19 survivors. Click here to read part one.
“It’s funny how you can be afraid to die, but at the same time you want to kill yourself, and that’s kind of where I was in the summer of 2020,” says Teresa Akintonwa, 46, a COVID-19 survivor.
By the time summer hit, Akintonwa, who lives in Metro Atlanta, Georgia, had been dealing with the disorienting effects of COVID-19 on her body and mind for months. She says at a certain point, things felt like it was becoming too much — it became a constant struggle to breathe, and she thought she might die in her sleep.
But, when she was alone with her thoughts, all she could think of was how to end her life. Her suicidal thoughts got to the point where she knew how she would end her life — and that’s when she decided to tell someone.
“I had to go to my family and tell them, here are my weapons. I need you to take these and put them away for me,” Akintonwa says. “I thought about it quite often, almost obsessively. That was the first time in my life I’d ever thought about suicide or hurting myself like that.”
Suicidal ideations, any kind of thoughts, ideas, or plans of ending your life, became more common during the pandemic, according to a study by the National Library of Medicine. Researchers found suicidal ideations increased during COVID-19 because of isolation, mental exhaustion, and loneliness, among other reasons.
A FAIR Health 2021 study found that intentional self-harm claims for youth aged 13-18 increased 91% from March 2019 to March 2020 and increased 100% from April 2019 to April 2020.
During the first three months of quarantine in the U.S., suicidal ideation rates nearly doubled between April and June, according to a psychiatry research study by Elsevier, a research publishing company.
How Survival Can Make You Suicidal
Akintonwa caught COVID-19 in February 2020. She was never hospitalized but was turned away from getting treatment at the emergency department because her symptoms were not severe enough.
After an antibody test months later, she got confirmation she did have COVID — but that’s when her long COVID symptoms started to kick in. She had difficulty breathing, debilitating headaches, extreme anxiety, difficulty speaking, and struggled to recall words.
Previously, she worked as a field consultant, she worked throughout southeast Atlanta to provide support to business owners. But as her symptoms progressed, her work performance started to decline. For 10 months, she says she had a headache that would not go away, and even family members started to accuse her of being a hypochondriac.
“At one point, I did go on a family leave. I took off three months because I was extremely overwhelmed between the absent-mindedness, anxiety, headaches, and dizziness,” she says.
When she returned to work, Akintonwa says her job was less than accommodating. She says her employer fired her in Oct. 2021 after refusing to allow her to bring an emotional support dog to business consultations.
“I looked fine, but people didn’t understand that just because I looked fine, can’t you see and hear that I’m not fine?” she says. “I think some of that played into it as far as not looking sick enough.”
Financially, Akintonwa took a hit. She says by the end of 2021, her severance pay ran out and she had to begin withdrawing from her 401(k) account to pay emergency room visits, medications, psychiatrists, and other household expenses. Between medical bills and lost income, Akintonwa estimates she lost “at least $70,000.”
Despite surviving COVID-19, the constant thoughts of harming herself persisted throughout the summer of 2020. She says her desire to grab weapons that could hurt her was constant. After reaching out for help, she founded the Black COVID-19 Survivors Alliance to support other Black folks struggling in this space.
But suicidal thoughts and ideations are not uncommon among Black COVID survivors. After receiving help from family, friends, and a psychiatrist Akintonwa says she no longer struggles with suicidal ideations but is using her organization to support Black COVID survivors who are struggling with suicidal thoughts and the pressures of recovery.
“I’ve had to deal with people saying that they want to end it all, people who are very distraught about losing their friends, and people who lost multiple family members to COVID,” Akintonwa says.
What Researchers Say
Terrell Strayhorn is a professor of education of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Illinois State University, owner of do good work consulting, and researcher of the effects of inequities on Black people.
Through an ongoing survey project he started in 2020, Strayhorn analyzes the impacts COVID-19 has had on Americans across different races, ethnicities, and ages — and one thing his project is looking at is the mental health outcomes of respondents.
“Those who had COVID symptoms whether they were mild, severe, or tested positive for COVID, reported higher levels of anxiety, higher levels of depression, and overall lower well-being than those who did not present symptoms or never tested positive during the pandemic,” he says.
Strayhorn says during the two and a half years he’s been researching COVID-19, and now long COVID, something that has come up often is excessive levels of worry and increased fear of being around groups of people.
For those who have developed long COVID symptoms, he says excessive fatigue, difficulty breathing, and forgetfulness are common symptoms. But, the long-term effects of long COVID are still being researched as symptoms can show up differently in each person.
“Long COVID is scary because we don’t know a lot about it,” he says.
The mental health impact of having long COVID is something Strayhorn is doing more research on — but he says “depression is debilitating” for folks who have an array of long COVID symptoms. And there are newer research studies that show these symptoms can have a physiological impact like an increase in suicidal ideations, self-harm, and suicide attempts.
If you or someone you know is feeling suicidal;
The National Alliance on Mental Illness suggests being willing to have uncomfortable conversations with someone experiencing suicidal ideations. It’s important to be compassionate and empathetic to what a person is going through and why they are feeling that way.
A few examples of compassionate statements:
- I’m so sorry you’re going through this.
- You mean so much to me. I can’t imagine life without you.
- I know that you’re in pain.
These examples offer validation, support, and show that you love your friend who is experiencing suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
Instead of making assumptions about what someone is feeling or planning on doing, ask questions to gauge if someone is thinking about suicide. Studies show when you ask someone if they are suicidal, it does not plant the idea in their mind. Instead, it can reduce the risk of a suicide attempt.
It’s also important to be direct with your questions.
- Do you think about hurting yourself?
- Do you think about dying?
- Are you thinking about killing yourself?
- Do you have a plan?
Don’t Judge, But Know When to Act
It’s important to not be quick to judge someone who is opening up about their suicidal thoughts and ideations. But, you also shouldn’t delay taking the appropriate measures to make sure they are safe and cared for.
Depending on the severity of their suicidal thoughts and plans, a few resources below can help determine who to call and what to do next.
- Help them find a therapist — psychologytoday.com offers a network of therapists who can help
- Call the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline for 24/7 free and confidential support for people in distress
- The Crisis Text Line provides free, 24/7, confidential support through text messages to people in crisis when they dial 741741
- Call 911
Additional Word In Black Coverage on Suicide and Long COVID
Get Word In Black directly in your inbox. Subscribe today.