Masks provide COVID-19 protection but can surface old traumas for sexual assault survivors

Warning: The content of this article might be upsetting to some readers

Posted: August 03, 2020

A used face mask is seen discarded on the ground in this file photo. Experts say masks can resurface traumatic memories for survivors of sexual assault. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Masks are supposed to decrease the spread of COVID-19, but for some survivors of sexual assault, the mandatory mask rules rolling out across Canada are making them feel decidedly less safe.

"Not every client experiences it but we do have a decent portion of our clientele that do struggle with it," said Mark Ballantyne, a therapist with the Central Alberta Sexual Assault Support Centre (CASASC) who works primarily with children.

Ballantyne said there's a variety of reasons wearing a mask can resurface trauma, from the texture of the fabric mimicking a pillow or bed sheets, to the smell of the fabric, to the sense that their breathing is being restricted in some way.


"One of the issues that comes up is breathing in hot air … we see quite a few kids like that, where they were sexually assaulted may have been under blankets or like some type of restriction, so they were breathing in hot air," he said. 

"So when they have the mask on them the air is more warm and so that's one thing we come up with that can be kind of triggering because there is a fear of being under a blanket ... where it's harder to breathe."

While there's no medical evidence that wearing a mask reduces a person's oxygen level, it can give the wearer a sensation of reduced airflow. 

For someone who's experienced trauma of any sort having any kind of restriction, especially on your breathing, could be very traumatic. - Danielle Aubrey, Calgary Communities Against Sexual Abuse

Ballantyne said there are some different coping strategies they suggest to clients, from rubbing a calming scent like lavender on their mask to trying it on for a short period at home to become acclimatized to wearing it.

"We have some clients who will come in and just take a mask provided and like some of these masks have a more medical feel ... which may be upsetting, just the idea of being back in a medical situation," he said. 

"So, I say design your own mask. I make my mask fun. So I'll get a cool design ... I'll make it my own.


"And if someone can make their mask their own, it makes them more comfortable and gets them used to the idea that it's not the same thing, and the reduction in airflow is not the same as what happened before, and just kind of take some ownership over their masks, have some power over it."

An estimated 1.8 million Albertans have experienced some form of sexual abuse in their lifetime, or 43 per cent of the population, according to the research conducted earlier this year by the Association of Alberta Sexual Assault Services in partnership with the Government of Alberta.

Danielle Aubrey, CEO of Calgary Communities Against Sexual Abuse (CCASA), said it became clear early in the pandemic that some clients were going to have a hard time with masks.

"There's just so many different reasons why it might be triggering for people," said Aubrey. "For someone who's experienced trauma of any sort having any kind of restriction, especially on your breathing, could be very traumatic."

CCASA works with a variety of clients, from crisis work with those who have been assaulted in the past 96 hours, to ongoing counselling and a support line people can call or text. 


"Some people might need to do some meditation or breathing exercises before they put the mask on," Aubrey said.

Support systems, physical distancing can help

Aubrey said there are also options for those who find wearing a mask too distressing, from relying on a support system to pick up groceries or run errands for them, to practicing physical distancing. 

In Calgary, people with underlying medical conditions or disabilities inhibiting their ability to wear a face covering are exempt from the city's mandatory mask bylaw.

Aubrey urged kindness toward people who aren't wearing masks in public. 

"I think it's important that we don't make assumptions as to why someone's not wearing a mask. If you want to address it somehow, do it very kindly and gently," she said. 

Currently, CCASA and CASASC offer virtual counselling, which gets around one stressor for survivors — speaking to someone who is wearing a mask about their trauma, without being able to read their therapist's facial expressions and establish trust. 


"When the therapist and client are both wearing masks, their level of hyper vigilance can be very high … so I found it's been harder for people who are just coming into therapy for the first time after an event," Ballantyne said. 

However, it can come with another stressor. 

"Some people don't feel comfortable with the virtual session because there is fear of people hearing the conversation … not wanting their children to hear it, not wanting their spouse to hear it," Ballantyne said, adding that some need assistance finding a location where they feel safe. 

Aubrey said if people are concerned about wearing a mask, experience a panic attack or flashback coming on, or just need someone to talk to or brainstorm solutions with, they can call, text, or use online chat to reach the province's One Line for Sexual Violence at 1-866-403-8000 daily between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m..

With files from Hala Ghonaim