The Disturbing Impact of Face Masks on Victims of Abuse

by Gary Sidley

How Coronavirus Is Affecting Victims of Domestic Violence | Time

After a four-month respite, the legal requirement to wear a mask in shops and on public transport was re-imposed in England on November 30th 2021, thereby re-aligning it with the rest of the United Kingdom. Ten days later, the mandates were extended to cinemas, theatres and most other public venues – purportedly on the basis of the threat posed by the new Omicron variant. It is apparent that Government officials, along with their mono-focused scientists who repeatedly fail to consider the bigger picture, do not understand the distressing impact of their actions on many people within our society. The victims of physical and sexual abuse are a case in point.  

It is often assumed that compelling people to wear face coverings in community settings has no downsides. We’ve all heard the mantras: ‘It’s only a mask’; ‘It’s a small inconvenience’; ‘It shows respect for others’. Many people fail to grasp that, not only is masking people who aren’t ill ineffective at reducing viral transmission, it is also associated with a wide range of negative consequences. One often-neglected example of the collateral damage of face coverings is the profound emotional impact on previously-traumatised people. In this article, the testimonies of such individuals (drawn from personal stories submitted to the Smile Free campaign, with pseudonyms to maintain anonymity) will be used to powerfully illustrate the mental anguish suffered by this vulnerable group as a direct result of the Government’s mask diktats.

For those who have suffered traumatic events in the past, masks can escalate painful emotions in a number of ways. Victims of previous physical and/or sexual abuse that involved an assailant’s hand over their mouths can be particularly sensitive to the somatic sensations associated with the wearing of a face covering, the tactile feel of them typically evoking ‘flashbacks’ and the reliving of the assaults. If the violent perpetrator wore a mask, merely the sight of someone wearing one can trigger the same disturbing memories. Jenny describes her trauma-driven torment as follows:

Mandated mask wearing has caused me numerous problems. I was sexually abused for years as a child where I was smothered and muffled, anything to stop me crying out. So mask wearing has been a trigger for me, both wearing and seeing people in masks… particularly children.

Many weeks ago I went into a shop and was aggressively followed by a man who wore a mask under his nose! It was very intimidating and luckily my husband was with me and it did not escalate. Hence also my reluctance to go into shops. They give me a feeling of dread and depression and panic.

Rachel relates similar experiences:

Some years ago I was violently sexually assaulted where I was strangled to the point of unconsciousness; to have anything covering my neck or face triggers me to feel very vulnerable and unable to breathe.

I have had a few incidents throughout the last 15 months of confrontation for not wearing a mask. Each time I have found I am less able to stand my ground and panic sets in, with my legs giving way and publicly suffering a panic attack.

Lucy, another victim of historical trauma, also describes the impact of the continuous social pressure to wear a mask:

Years ago I was attacked; grabbed from behind by a man holding an arm over my nose and mouth to silence my scream. I was then held at knifepoint for hours on my kitchen floor. This is why I have never worn a mask, it’s too much for me to have my mouth and nose covered in this way.

I shouldn’t have to explain this to anyone (I never have) but I almost feel like I have to justify why I won’t and can’t comply with the mask rules.

For other abuse victims, like Maia, the link between masks and anguish is more complex, a covered face symbolising her suffering and historical maltreatment. In the words of a close relative:     

Maia has complex post-traumatic stress disorder, caused by a childhood of emotional neglect and abuse, leading to a deep sense of abandonment, rejection, and a perception that the world is not safe. It’s all hidden to the outside world, but during the pandemic she has suffered chronic intense distress, switching between utter despair, debilitating fear and raging anger.

You might perhaps imagine that the fear of catching Covid was the trigger for all these extreme emotions. But no. It is the way in which the Government and media have ‘handled’ the pandemic that is the source of her greatest distress. Especially since she knows that the measures introduced to ‘protect’ the public have done exactly the opposite for many, many people (including her), and mental health has been utterly ignored to any practical degree.

Face coverings are the biggest, most obvious manifestation of the wrong she has been subjected to. The mere sight of someone wearing a face covering elicits intense anger and despair. She is exempt (on two counts), but has rarely been into shops because of the feelings of rejection that the incessant and subtle virtue signalling triggers. Even going for a short run is timed to avoid as many people as possible who might trigger these powerful, debilitating feelings.

So to her, the seemingly never-ending Government persistence in mandating the use of face coverings are far from a protection against the virus; they are the ultimate visible manifestations of hopelessness, incarceration and control.

One of the Government’s expert advisers has admitted that the recommendation to mask the healthy was more about promoting compliance with Covid restrictions than reducing viral transmission. Clearly, the behavioural scientists who decided to deploy face coverings as a symbol of ‘solidarity’ failed to consider people like Maia who have already suffered years of malignant control, coercion and enforced servitude.

For others who have experienced traumatic events, it is the discriminatory behaviour of health professionals towards the unmasked that is the major source of their problems. Eight years ago, Sally’s first baby had been born with significant brain damage as a direct result of a long labour and medical negligence. Now in her third pregnancy, she understandably felt anxious and apprehensive when she attended hospital for her scan. Regrettably, her experiences at the hospital were far from reassuring:

After the scan I was sitting in the waiting area when a midwife came and said she needed to talk to me in the scan room.

I felt anxious there was a problem with the scan. In fact she was taking me aside to ask why I wasn’t wearing a mask. I explained that I didn’t think I needed to tell her why and that I was exempt. She wasn’t satisfied with my answer. She told me she had a responsibility to keep her other pregnant ladies safe and that I could still be seen by the Consultant but I needed to wait in the corridor.

I felt really angry, frustrated and worried. I also felt concerned that my antenatal care was being compromised because I wasn’t wearing a mask.

I realised the scan had been performed more quickly than usual with little interaction from the sonographer.

Rachel (as mentioned above) relates a similar experience at her GP surgery:

My doctors refused me treatment unless I covered my face. I showed them the guidance, explained why I was exempt, I was told they have to wear one so I do too.

I offered to put my scarf over my face which I did then collapsed in the nurse room with a panic attack; I could not stand, breathe or begin to speak. I was met with – “Oh, it is bad then?”

I wrote a letter of complaint to the Practice Manager (January 2021). I still have yet to hear a response. This has made me feel like my voice has yet again been taken away. No aspect of the mask mandate has ever made me feel protected or that I mattered. Instead I feel exposed, vulnerable and afraid to go out anywhere I may be challenged; this is not living.

The personal experiences of Jenny, Rachel, Lucy, Maia and Sally powerfully demonstrate that mask wearing in community settings presents huge difficulties for many people, particularly so for those previously traumatised, and is anything but a ‘no-lose’ phenomenon. For the sake of the many victims of trauma, we must continue to oppose this most insidious of Covid restrictions.

If you wish to help remove the mask mandates, and prevent their re-introduction, please consider joining our Smile Free campaign.

Dr. Gary Sidley is a retired clinical psychologist with over 30 years’ experience working for the NHS and one of the founders of the Smile Free campaign, which advocates against masking.

July 2022
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