By NOAH TABORDA
TOPEKA — A leading mental health expert at the University of Kansas Health System says the psychology behind whether people choose to wear a mask boils down to two key factors — inconvenience and vulnerability.
Lauren Lucht, executive director for behavioral and mental health, said vulnerability often triggers defense mechanisms in people to convince themselves everything will be fine.
“One defense mechanism as humans is to convince ourselves that bad things don’t happen to good people,” Lucht said. “In psychology, we call that belief in a just world. So, I think we’re in a bit of denial, and we don’t want to be inconvenienced for something we want to believe we’re at extremely low risk for catching and transmitting.”
Whether it is fear of contracting the virus driving someone to wear a mask or a feeling of false invincibility influencing a person to abstain from mask-wearing, psychology and our mental state play a large role in our decisions amid COVID-19, Lucht said Tuesday.
When confronted with their own vulnerability, people may attempt to justify that the inconvenience and risk of feeling vulnerable is reason enough not to mask up, Lucht said.
Dana Hawkinson, medical director of infection and prevention control, echoed Lucht, pushing Kansans to drop the idea of mask-wearing as a political issue.
“There’s enough objective data and science out there that show us that mask-wearing and separation or physical distancing works to decrease the spread of this virus,” Hawkinson said. “That continued thought of, ‘I don’t have to wear a mask because it infringes on my freedoms,’ is really a backward thought, and it’s not based in any science or data.”
U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran said he views wearing a mask as a matter of common sense.
“Presumably, medicine concurs with common sense that wearing a mask makes you and more importantly the people you are around safer,” Moran said. “Social distancing and mask-wearing ought to hasten the day in which we are closer to being back to normal.”
The inconveniences or disruptions in that “normal” day-to-day wearing a mask might create — be it expressing yourself through a smile or just not enjoying the feeling of the mask — often elicits strong but valid reactions, Lucht said.
“We miss things. We miss hugs and smiles and high fives and handshaking, and all those things are completely valid,” Lucht said. “We cannot do those things right now the way we used to and It’s not about taking away anyone’s freedoms. It’s about personal responsibility so that we can get back to the life where we have more control about whether or not we put a mask on.”
The effect of added vulnerability from COVID-19 extends beyond mask-wearing, Lucht said. If people are not used to feeling vulnerable, it can be a significant stressor added on top of an already stressful time.
Amid COVID-19, Lucht has seen a marked increase in the mental and behavioral health services requested of KU Health System.
“30% of Americans are reporting an increase in depression and anxiety related to the pandemic, and experts would argue that the other 70% are lying,” Lucht said. “I don’t know what island you might live on where this wouldn’t have inconvenienced some element of your life. That becomes a stressor.”
Lucht said the longer the pandemic continues, the more likely we are to see people experience fatigue as a result of this perception of vulnerability or dealing with these inconveniences.
Regardless of which side of the mask-wearing isle you are on, Steven Stites, chief medical officer for the KU Health System, implored Kansans to take personal responsibility for their mental and physical health.
“Following the pillars of infection control prevention is not an act of obedience. It is an act of kindness and generosity that protects not only you, but it really protects everybody around you,” Stites said. “The science is here to help us get to the other side, but it’s our own individual actions that drive our ability to do that effectively.”