People who see me out and about and at work will know I don’t wear a face covering. I’ve largely moved past the intial “why nots” and most people who know me fairly well know it’s potentially not a subject to probe too much about. But that doesn’t stop Joe Public from asking questions and making judgements.
I don’t wear a face mask because of mental health issues. I don’t understand the reason why it bothers me entirely, but I understand it upsets me enough that it would not allow me to safely navigate my daily life if I forced myself to wear one. I’m constantly avoiding and managing other every day triggers, I don’t need an extra one. All I know is that even if someone starts suggesting that I wear one, I start panicking instantly, struggle to not dissociate and start losing my ability to speak. I may or may not burst into tears too. I strongly suspect it’s tied up in the reason I struggle to speak at times.
I’m not being fussy, I’m not doing it because I don’t want to protect other people, I’m not doing it because I don’t understand the risks, I’m not doing it because I can’t be bothered, I’m not doing it because it’s a little bit uncomfortable and annoying. I’m not wearing a mask because it causes me real and valid psychological distress.
However, as ever – people are very much caught up in their split second judgement of me as a person, often forgetting that not all disabilities are visible. I’ve had “but you’re on roller skates you can’t possibly struggle breathing with a mask”, “that’s so selfish – we’re all putting up with the discomfort, do it for other people if not for yourself”, I’ve been refused to be served in shops despite showing my exemption card, I’ve had other people travelling on buses kicking off at the driver because I’m not wearing a face covering. I constantly feel guilty and very aware I’m not wearing one and what people will deduce about me from that.
I know so many people with mental health problems who struggle with masks – whether for some people that’s wearing a mask themselves or if it’s the sight of people around them wearing a mask. Roots of the issue stem from trauma, sensory issues, anxiety and panic attacks, not being able to read or recognise people’s faces or emotions and many more. They don’t need to explain to you why they are not able to wear a mask – just “it’s not helpful for my mental health” should suffice.
One positive of the guidance around wearing face masks is the increased recognition of the sunflower lanyard scheme – which has been around for a number of years but not well recognised before it started being used by people exempt from wearing face coverings. The green and yellow lanyard and accompanying cards is a way for the wearer to communicate that they have a disability that may be hidden and therefore may need some adjustments or assistance to help them go about their day. I find mine invaluable in just being able to alert someone to the fact that I might struggle but without wearing a sign indicating I’m a little bit mad.
So if you see someone not wearing a mask. Don’t get on your high horse immediately. There may be a good reason why they have chosen not to wear one and if you see someone displaying the hidden disability sunflower – be aware that navigating daily life might be that little bit more complicated for them.