Survivors on our helpline tell us that covering their own face or seeing the faces of others covered has been a triggering experience for them. From a small survey we conducted, we found that a third of survivors who responded confirmed this. With the Government’s announcement that face coverings will be mandatory in shops from Friday the 24th of July, this issue will only worsen for survivors affected by this.

Within the Government’s Guidelines for face coverings on public transport, it states that those who “cannot put on, wear, or remove a face covering without severe distress” will be exempt. Although technically this exemption includes survivors of sexual violence who are triggered by covering their face, asking a survivor to explain this to staff and security guards is a terrifying and humiliating prospect. Many survivors already carry a great deal of shame about what happened to them, making disclosing this to strangers an impossibility. There is also the worry as to how staff or other shoppers may react to them. We live in a society where members of the general public’s perception of survivors are still heavily clouded by rape myths and victim blaming. Survivors may not always receive an empathetic and compassionate response.

Although we strongly urge survivors to try to wear face coverings in order to protect themselves and the vulnerable members of our society, the guidelines state that those who “cannot put on, wear, or remove a face covering without severe distress” are exempt.

If wearing a face covering will be severely distressing for you, please download one or both of these images to your phone to present to staff when entering shops. These are NOT official Government documents but they may help you feel more comfortable when speaking with staff and security guards.

    

When viewing this web page on your phone, press the image above with your finger and hold down for a second or two. A box will pop up with a few options, select the option to download or save the image. The image should then appear in your photos ready for you to access.

Here are a number of alternative exemption cards that you can download, print and present:

Masks and face coverings can be triggering for a number of reasons. Wearing a face covering can trigger memories of abuse, such as the feeling of having a hand covering your mouth or your face pushed into a pillow. They can also make us feel claustrophobic which can trigger fears of having a panic attack or losing control of our breathing. Survivors have also reported that not being able to see the faces of those around them is intimidating and makes them feel worried. With the conditions of lockdown worsening pre-existing mental health issues and feelings of isolation for many people in the UK, survivors are particularly vulnerable at this time.

Here are some of our tips to consider for those who are worried about wearing a mask:

Practice wearing your face covering at home. If wearing a face covering or mask in public has been particularly triggering for you, try practicing wearing one at home or in environments where you already know you feel safe. Take the time to get used to how it feels on your face. This will make you feel more prepared and relaxed for when you might have to wear the face covering in less familiar or more stressful situations.

Find the right face covering. Some masks and face coverings fit better than others depending on the size and shape of your face. If you can find a face covering that is comfortable and doesn’t irritate you, this will help you stay relaxed in public. 

Get creative. If you feel uncomfortable wearing a mask, you could consider wearing a scarf or handkerchief over your mouth instead. Although the feeling is similar, it may be less restrictive and more familiar if it is an item you've owned for a long time. You could even make your own mask or face covering with fabric that makes you happy and feels comfortable on your skin. Here are some official tips on making effective face coverings. If you like the idea of having a personalised mask but would find it difficult to make your own, you can find personalising options online, such as on Bags of Love.

Make it smell good. If there is a particular smell that you find relaxing, such as lavender, invest in a pillow spray that you can lightly spray a fabric mask with 20 minutes before you need to use it. That way, by the time you come to wear the face covering, the smell won’t be overpowering but just enough to relax your senses.

Ask for support. If you have trusted family and loved ones who know what you have been through, ask for their support. This might look like going for practice walks in the face covering with you, going with you to the shops to support you if it gets too much, or helping you to find the right covering for you.

If even after following these tips a mask is still causing you significant distress, you could consider a face shield instead. These still offer protection to the wearer and those around them without the same restrictive fabric covering the mouth. The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) outlines on their website that they do not recommend the use of face shields as a substitute for face coverings, however, if they are used without a mask “they should wrap around the sides of the wearer’s face and extend to below the chin. Disposable face shields should only be worn for a single use. Reusable face shields should be cleaned and disinfected after each use.” You can find more information on this on the CDC's website here. Face shields are also helpful for those who are hearing impaired or wear glasses (face masks are renowned for steaming up glasses.) You can find a variety of face shields on Amazon and other online retailers. 

If you lip-read as part of your communication, you may find an app such as Live Transcribe helpful when those around you are wearing a mask. The app will create live subtitles on screen as a person speaks. Simply search for this in your phone’s app store and click download.

If you feel triggered when you are out in public, whether this is due to face coverings or being overwhelmed by busy places, try considering grounding techniques. Grounding techniques can be very useful when we feel really distressed, particularly when the distress makes us feel very unreal or detached, or it feels like we are in a different situation to where we really are. You can find these here.