Covid-19: Domestic abuse survivors experiencing “severe distress” when wearing a mask are exempt  

Ruth Mason, head of Change That Lasts, says:  

According to government guidelines, face coverings will need to be worn by customers in shops and supermarkets from today, 24 July 2020, although it is not compulsory for shop workers. Passengers travelling on public transport in England have been required by law to wear face coverings since 15 June.   

Women’s Aid welcomes the government’s exemptions list. You are not required to wear a mask if you “cannot put on, wear, or remove a face covering without severe distress”, or “because of a physical or mental illness”, or if a person is travelling to avoid injury or escape the risk of harm.  

However, we believe the government should have been clearer in giving examples of “severe distress”. This would give survivors the clarity and confidence they need if they find that wearing a face covering is intolerable.   

Survivors tell us that wearing face coverings can cause severe distress.   

Traumatic invasions of personal space from sexual trauma, strangulation or smothering can be part of a pattern of coercive control and domestic abuse. Survivors work hard to ensure that the legacy of trauma caused by domestic abuse perpetrators is hidden or invisible in their daily life.  

Breathing hot air, not being able to breathe freely, or feeling smothered may re-awake panic and fear in the survivor that have lain dormant for years. This triggering of past trauma can be deeply disturbing. However, this a natural and normal response to overwhelming life-threatening situations and can be overcome. We hope the advice below may help.    

Advice for survivors that may find face coverings distressing  

  • Try experimenting with a variety of masks in a situation where you feel safe and secure – ideally where you are under no pressure to wear it and can take it off at any point  
  • A face covering can be handkerchief, bandana or a scarf, as long it covers nose and mouth 
  • Remind yourself why you want to wear the face covering and why it is important to you – acclimatise by practicing wearing it in a safe space for a small amount of time and build up slowly  
  • Go at your own pace and don’t put pressure on yourself. Remember that, if it is hard one day, it might not mean that it is always hard – be curious about what will work best for you  
  • Be kind to yourself: face covering might be tolerable in some situations, and then intolerable in another situation 
  • The sense of smell is really important to feeling safe so you could try putting a few drops of lavender or a favourite perfume which reminds you of being safe. If strongly-flavoured foods, alcohol or cigarettes might remind you of your perpetrator, avoid wearing a mask when you have been eating/drinking or smoking  
  • Some face coverings with nose wire can stop glasses steaming up, or try using a pipe cleaner or paper clip to help the fabric stay closer to your face   
  • Ask friends, family or a counsellor for help to manage panic and intrusive feelings. You can also get support from Women’s Aid Live Chat  
  • If anyone asks why you are not wearing a mask, explain you are exempt because wearing a mask causes “severe distress”. You could add, saying: “because of trauma-related stress.” However, you do not need to give any more detail if you do not want to. 

Survivors, with limited hearing, or who rely on facial expressions to feel safe, may experience distress from other people wearing masks.  

We hope you may be able to wear a mask safely and feel safe doing so. But, if a wearing a face covering causes severe distress, please feel confident in your decision not to wear one.   

No survivor should feel shamed for not being able to wear a mask.  

We ask the public to stand with survivors in these days ahead. It is important to remember that perpetrators may try to restrict women and children’s movements due to their lack of ability to wear a mask safely.  A perpetrator’s behaviour can limit the choices that survivors make on a day-to-day basis.  

Even after the survivor has left the relationship, the legacy of the abuser’s behaviour casts a long shadow.  

Please show your support for survivors by treating those who are not wearing masks with compassion and dignity.   

© 2022 Women's Aid Federation of England – Women’s Aid is a company limited by guarantee registered in England No: 3171880.

Women’s Aid is a registered charity in England No. 1054154

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