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Mask Shaming and New Social Divides during the Pandemic

Posted By Kelly Martincin, PhD | Communications and Technology Committee Co-Chair, Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Written by: Kelly Martincin, Ph.D., Co-chair of OPA Communications and Technology Committee, Chair of OPA Public Sector Interests Committee

As with all CTC blog postings, this column is not intended for medical, legal, or ethical advice; it is purely for information sharing and is the experience of one psychologist attempting to be useful to her peers during a very difficult time.  This past week, my heart has been a bit heavier than usual during many of my therapy sessions with patients.  Instead of talking about common symptoms of depression and anxiety that were coming up earlier in this pandemic, new themes of feeling “othered” have begun coming up.  One patient mentioned that she has been wearing a mask not only because she worries about her health, but also because “what will others think?” if she is out at the grocery store and not in a mask.  She worried that she would be judged as someone who is being reckless and callous to the health of others.  It has also come up on the listserv and in conversations with colleagues about those who cannot wear masks due to pulmonary or other medical conditions - are they experiencing judgment and discrimination?  Perhaps they are, and these are individuals who are already at high medical risk of complications if they were to contract COVID 19.  To add a new layer of stress and fear of judgment on top of the health-related terrors not likely to be helpful for these individuals.  

Several other patients this week brought up current political divides in our nation at the moment, including feelings of fear and sadness related to protests in Michigan, Columbus, and even events in Washington.  Some of these patients identified as Republicans, some as Democrats, but the common theme was feelings of fear and feeling “misunderstood” by “the others” and the belief that there is a growing gap between “us and them” in our nation.  Each had worries about their health and the health of their families, each had worries about the economy and wanting our nation to be prosperous, but it was clear that they believed there was no opportunity for productive dialogue with people whom they perceived to be “the others” at this time.  

In yet another demonstration of how we are divided as a nation, other patients were bringing up personal reactions to events from the news this week; particularly, events related to the shooting deaths of Ahmaud Arbrey and Breonna Taylor.  We had discussions of their thoughts on how they feel being a person of color right now, fears for family members that reside in Kentucky or Georgia, and fears of participating in everyday activities such as jogging or going to sleeping alone in one’s home. They continue to have fears for their health and safety and are asking big questions about race and equality that are not easily answered, but must not be ignored.  

As psychologists, we’ve all rooted our life’s work in the advancement of health and wellness for others.  Social justice is woven into everything we do, however advancement of mental health is simply not possible when division is negatively influencing lives.  Currently social division is present in small ways such as worries about interactions at the grocery store, in ways that some consider to be more ambiguous such as political divisions, and in some of the most serious ways - ways that compromise the literal safety of many individuals engaging in common daily activities.   While the pandemic is obviously not responsible for this division, it is likely highlighting tensions that were already simmering.  Also, not every major disaster results in this sort of division.  Recall the days after September 11th when our nation felt united in every way.  It is possible to band together and make a change.  

If you are similar to me, you may feel as if these are huge problems and you are just one person, so where does one even start to make a difference?  How can one even begin to advocate for others or even begin to conceptualize how to impact social justice initiatives in any meaningful way in the midst of a pandemic?  I personally start with education, first for myself and then I try to share what I learn with others.  For instance, some people might not be aware that African Americans and Latinos are dying of COVID 19 at higher rates than other racial groups (see the CDC website for more information).  This is obviously a new phenomenon and I look forward to seeing peer reviewed research on why this might be and what can be done. Having conversations about this, having conversations about healthcare disparities, and having educational conversations with one another using information from reliable resources on these topics is an important first step in the advancement of equality.  

Next, we all need to be active in our nation’s political process at both the state and national levels.  During the pandemic, OPA leaders have been in touch with state leadership about ongoing mental health services during the crisis, but your voice should be heard too.  Not sure who your congressman is?  Click here and enter your zip code  (my congressman conveniently has his email listed, your’s likely does too).  Don’t forget this is a major election year!  Have you moved recently or do you need to double check that you are registered to vote?  Visit the state’s voter registration site for more information.  Your local government likely has similar pages for any local needs that are easily found in a quick Google search.  Make sure the issues that are important to you are heard by representatives at every level of government.  

Finally, we all might be continuing to shelter in place and adhering to social distancing guidelines, but there are still ways to make others aware of critical issues that are going on in the world right now.  I use my personal social media to share causes I care about and I also follow OPA’s social media pages for updates on what OPA is doing for social justice and advocacy.  If you want to be more involved in OPA’s efforts, OPA has committees for advocacy and diversity that would love to have your help!  Please reach out if you would like to be connected and help with these efforts.  

Have questions or an idea for a future CTC blog post?  Email Dr. Kelly Martincin


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