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Frenchmen street reflects into a mirror on a fence during the coronavirus pandemic in New Orleans, Monday, March 23, 2020. Governor John Bel Edwards announced a statewide stay-at-home mandate starting at 5pm on Monday.

The coronavirus pandemic will likely test mental health and wellness in the coming weeks and months, but experts say everyone will face different challenges depending on how the virus affects them — and the strength of their support network of friends and family.

Each person's situation will depend on their experiences and past mental health history, said Dr. Elizabeth Ault, a psychiatrist with Integrated Behavioral Health.

“For some, the pandemic is going to be simply staying at home, changing their routine, that sort of thing,” Ault said. “For those people who have good support systems, they may be at lower risk for significant mental health effects.”

But for those who lose their jobs or loved ones as a result of the outbreak, the outcome could be different. People who have been diagnosed with COVID-19, work in the medical field or have family or friends who work in the medical field may be more emotionally vulnerable during and after the pandemic.

Ault explained that, for those with a pre-existing history of depression or anxiety, the pandemic could potentially exacerbate those problems — especially if those people are on the front lines of the virus and its response.

Others may develop mood or anxiety symptoms despite never having such problems before. Although this could be a short-term reaction, it could also develop into a chronic condition.

“Someone who has had a direct impact from this is more at risk for developing those symptoms,” Ault said. “For people who are able to work from home, who financially have not been impacted, who medically have not been impacted — they will be at lower risk.”

The pandemic could also take a toll on children's mental health, said Sarah A.O. Gray, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Tulane University and licensed clinical psychologist. A toddler may be thrilled to have parents home all day, but a 5-year-old who just started kindergarten may be confused at the disruption of a normal schedule.   

Like adults, kids will experience trauma depending on their proximity to the virus — from facing the immediacy of grief to dealing with limited food access because of parents losing their jobs. 

Gray said one of the best ways to help kids through this crisis is to check in with them regularly.

“Relationships are the most powerful buffer against trauma,” Gray said. “The nefarious thing about this pandemic and the response is that one of the things we know for trauma generally is that social support is one of the strongest buffers.”

Some fear the suicide rate could increase. Raymond Tucker, an assistant professor in LSU’s Psychology Department, said this concern is understandable, but the reality is more complicated and possibly more hopeful.

Tucker, who studies suicide prevention, said social isolation is generally a good predictor of people thinking about suicide, but a miserable predictor of people actually dying by suicide.

“People kill themselves for very different reasons,” Tucker said. “It’s so intimate to a person. Making these sort of grand statements that we will see an increase in suicide rates because of one thing is probably very inaccurate.”

On the other hand, Tucker pointed out that when an economic recession hits and unemployment rises — a fear circulating the globe as the stock market continues to fluctuate — the suicide rate does tend to increase. 

“The effect COVID-19 will have on suicide and mental health concerns remains unclear,” he said. “However, potential increases (in stress over) having secure employment, economic stability and meaningful social connections are cause for concern.”

Nevertheless, he added that in times of crisis, such as war or natural disasters, people often band together and enjoy uncommon togetherness as they weather the literal or figurative storm. While it is unclear if this trend will extend to the pandemic, Tucker said, fostering social connections can help get people through this time of uncertainty. 

"Stay connected, engage in value-driven activities to help with depression or anxiety," Tucker said. “You can remember the 3 Ps to help: engage with people, pleasurable activities and activities that give your life purpose."

For those feeling suicidal or depressed, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention provides resources for getting through the COVID-19 pandemic. Those in crisis can also contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for support.


Email Jacqueline DeRobertis at jderobertis@theadvocate.com