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Advocates speak out for trauma-based mask exemptions ahead of Lethbridge city decision

Survivors of abuse speak out about mask exemptions
As Lethbridge City Council nears its final decision on mandatory face masks in public spaces, survivors of abuse are speaking out about making exemptions for those unable to wear masks due to trauma. Emily Olsen reports.

For Chonita Sims, the upcoming Lethbridge city decision about whether to make masks mandatory in public spaces is a horrifying thought.

“It feels like my whole world is closing,” Sims said. “I’m not going to be able to do any shopping, I’m not going to be able to do any dog training. I just feel like all of a sudden I’m getting isolated.”

Read more: Lethbridge City Council debates mandatory mask bylaw

Sims is diagnosed with a complex PTSD resulting from severe childhood and sexual abuse.

Though she prefers not to go into graphic detail, she now suffers from extreme claustrophobia and can’t handle anything or anyone touching her face or head.

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“To put something on my face… I feel like I want to curl up in a fetal position and just hide. I feel like I’m going to go into a panic attack. I feel like I’m going to need hospitalization.”

Read more: City of Edmonton ends mask-exemption card distribution just 5 days after launch

Cheryl Patterson from the Chinook Sexual Assault Centre says it’s an experience she’s heard before.

“Some of them will say that it feels like someone’s holding a hand over their mouth or it’s difficult to breathe,” Patterson explained. “It is a very significant trauma response for some individuals to not be able to wear masks. I think the community needs to be sensitive and aware of that.”

Read more: COVID-19: Here’s where you have to wear a mask in Alberta

Patterson recommends those struggling with masks for mental health reasons try a number of techniques to get used to them, including:

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  • look for a mask that fits comfortably
  • personalize their mask 
  • practice wearing a mask in a safe space or with a counselor
  • practice grounding and breathing techniques

“Try a bunch of different things until you find something that works for you. Chewing gum or singing will move your vagus nerve which will help calm your nervous system,” Patterson said. 

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“Just be gentle with yourself and know that this is a normal response to trauma, and you’re doing the best you can. You need to do what works best for you.”

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Sims wants to wear a mask, but says the trauma is just too intense, and she knows others feel the same.

“Unless there are exemptions made, there are going to be a lot of people who can’t leave their home,” Sims said. “And I’m speaking up for them.”

Read more: Coronavirus: City of Lethbridge requires face coverings in over a dozen city-owned facilities starting Friday

Proposed exemptions by the city include those for medical reasons, but the specifics of the local bylaw remain unclear until it is back before city council Aug. 24.

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In the meantime, Sims says she will continue to advocate.

“I’m taking the first step, and I hope other people take that step as well,” she said.

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Masks are mandatory in public spaces in a number of Alberta jurisdictions, including Edmonton, Calgary and areas of Banff.