Much has been written recently about the mental health crisis in the U.S. precipitated by this pandemic. People are experiencing depression, stress and anxiety. Rather than write about options for dealing with this (and there are options), I’m writing now about a particular form of dysfunctional response to this virus. That is psychological denial.
The American Psychological Association defines “psychological denial” as “a defense mechanism in which unpleasant thoughts, feelings, wishes, or events are ignored or excluded from conscious awareness. It may take such forms as refusal to acknowledge the reality of a terminal illness, a financial problem, an addiction, or a partner’s infidelity. Denial is an unconscious process that functions to resolve emotional conflict or reduce anxiety.”
Psychological denial is a personal problem gone public when people who are in a state of denial engage in behaviors that affect the welfare of others.
Here’s an example. For about twenty years, I’ve had a postal box at Coronado Station in Tucson (on Rosemont north of Broadway). If I have to buy stamps or mail a package, I go to one of the windows and see a postal clerk. At my post office, there are signs and markers on the floor for postal customers to stay six feet away from each other. There’s one long desk divided into different “windows” so the entire room is actually open air. Currently, every “window” at this long desk has a plexiglass barrier between the clerk and the customer. Some of the postal clerks behind the plexiglass are wearing masks, too.
There is one exception. At one of the windows, the clerk is not behind a plexi barrier, and he is not wearing a mask. If you go to his window, you will be approximately three feet away from him. So while I was waiting (at the window next to his), I asked him why he didn’t have a plexi barrier or why he wasn’t wearing a mask. He said, “I don’t have to have a barrier, and I didn’t request one. I’ve been around people with the flu, and I never got it. And I’m not going to let this virus get me down.”
1) The plexi barrier: I looked at the U.S. Postal Office website which says, “To reduce health risks for our employees and customers and to safeguard our operational and business continuity, the Postal Service is doing the following:” There’s a long list of actions including “Reinforcing workplace behaviors to ensure that contact among our employees and with our customers reflects the best guidance regarding healthy interactions, social distancing, and risk minimization. We have implemented measures at retail facilities and mail processing facilities to ensure appropriate social distancing, including through signage, floor tape, and “cough/sneeze” barriers.” (my boldface)
It’s not clear to me why this postal clerk thinks he gets to choose or reject the plexi barrier. Nor is it clear why the Post Master isn’t enforcing this. As I said, go to his window, and you’ll be about three feet away from him – no social distancing.
2) “Never catching the regular flu.” COVID-19 is not “the regular flu.” It is a very, very infectious disease with no cure and no vaccine. And this postal clerk doesn’t seem to realize that he could be one of the infected who shows no symptoms, but who is easily capable of infecting others. A part of his faulty thinking is simply ignorance about how the natural world works, how viruses work and how our immune systems work. I’m personally not willing to take a chance that I’m one who can be infected but who doesn’t get sick or who doesn’t get very sick. I could die.
3) “And I’m not going to let this virus get me down.” This is a classic example of psychological denial. This postal clerk just doesn’t want to deal with the reality of the virus. Standing behind a protective barrier or wearing a mask will force him to accept what is really going on. He is clearly not concerned about how his behavior affects his postal customers. But this isn’t a bar on a Saturday night. This is the U.S. Post Office.
Here’s a good article to read, “The Psychological Reason Why Some People Aren’t Following COVID-19 Quarantine Orders.”
Individuals can be in psychological denial if they want to be in psychological denial. But do they have the right to endanger other people with their behavior? I don’t think so. Also I want to note that the virus doesn’t have a brain. It does not know or care if you are a Republican or a Democrat. It isn’t concerned about your “Constitutional right” to do whatever you want.
So what should we do about this? It looks to me like I’m going to be self-quarantined until there is an effective and reliable vaccine for COVID-19. I don’t go out often, usually only to the grocery store and post office. And when I go, I wear a mask and gloves, and I disinfect everything when I come home. There are too many people out there in psychological denial these days. As far as the postal clerk is concerned, I never go to his window.
I’ll wait for the vaccine, and I hope this postal clerk who is in psychological denial doesn’t infect anyone with COVID-19.