Anyone else feel like you are constantly navigating new life territory due to the COVID-19 pandemic? I do! At every turn, it seems there is a new question or decision, and it is draining my energy at record pace. In just the last month, I’ve decided to try doing a staycation instead of a trip for our family vacation, how to safely attend important graduation events, canceled a planned visit from a loved one in California, and realized that I’m just not ready to send our three-year-old daughter back to preschool in a few weeks. Another big decision for all of us amidst this pandemic is whether to wear a mask in public or not.
Depending on your cultural background, your work, and/or where you live, wearing masks might be commonplace or quite unusual. I am a white female, a clinical psychologist, living in a rural area of Indiana. Until the pandemic, I had only worn a mask for Halloween and once when I went to the doctor with flu-like symptoms. For me, mask-wearing is a new decision. It has also been made increasingly more confusing by the flood of information about whether mask-wearing is beneficial in the prevention or transmission of COVID-19. I’m guessing I’m not the only one out there who has experienced fatigue over merely trying to find good, solid, scientific facts to guide my decisions. Per the CDC website, the general guidance is that “people wear cloth face coverings in public settings and when around people who don’t live in your household, especially when other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.”
One thing is for sure though, people are all over the map on their beliefs about whether to wear masks in public. Every week, I gather with a small group of neighborhood moms. We bring our lawn chairs and meet up on one woman’s driveway so that we can social distance. We talk about a variety of topics, but often spend some of our time discussing how the virus is impacting our relationships, children, work, and life. In one conversation, a few of us talked about our decisions to wear masks or not.
I should say up front that I have been a strong supporter of the “wear masks” camp since the virus hit. My husband has some pre-existing conditions that place him at greater risk should he contract the virus, so we have been erring on the side of safety. However, as the mom of a three-year-old, I can say that it has been nearly impossible to keep her masked for longer than a few minutes at a time (don’t even get me started on the challenges of getting a super social toddler to social distance), so we also generally do not spend much time in public.
However, as I sat amidst the group of fellow moms and heard a range of perspectives on whether to wear masks or not, what struck me is that we each held strong beliefs about our positions. I was also keenly aware of the judgments flooding my thoughts, “How could you NOT wear a mask in public?” “What if you contract the virus unknowingly and pass to others?” or “What if you have the virus right now and I’m potentially exposed?” These types of thoughts are examples of the judgement and stigma associated with people’s choice to not wear masks. Some people view the decision to not wear a mask as a right, so when government (local, state or federal) begins to challenge this right, a part of the population is outraged. Our governor just announced the start of a mandatory mask requirement when in public, which has been quickly followed by Facebook tirades and rallies opposing the mandate.
There is also stigma related to people wearing masks. As a result of the confusion over early Coronavirus guidance about wearing masks, some people might think that anyone who wears a mask in public is already sick with the virus, or unnecessarily anxious, and this may cause them to treat the person differently.
Since we cannot control how other people think, feel or behave, our primary recourse to combat stigma associated with mask wearing during the pandemic is to stay educated about the rapidly evolving guidance and take responsibility for our own choices. I decide whether I attend our weekly neighborhood moms meet-up, and when I do participate, it is my responsibility to social distance while I’m there. I must embrace all the decisions present in life during Coronavirus, doing my best to decide what I believe is right for me and my family. I also want to work to lessen my judgment of others for not wearing masks because I do not know their situation. What I can do instead is determine what level of contact (or lack of contact) I have with those who decide not to wear a mask.
As I mentioned above, I am a clinical psychologist, not a medical doctor or an expert on infectious disease, so any positions I state in this blog are my personal thoughts about mask wearing during this pandemic. My interest in this blog is purely to explore the potential stigma associated with wearing (and not wearing) masks. For current information and guidance on mask wearing during the pandemic, check out the following CDC resource: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/cloth-face-cover-guidance.html
For more information and resources, visit the CDP's COVID-19 Behavioral Health Resources page here.
The opinions in CDP Staff Perspective blogs are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Science or the Department of Defense.
Erin Frick, Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist and Military Behavioral Health Psychologist at the Center for Deployment Psychology (CDP) at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USU) in Bethesda, Maryland.