Understanding the Shame and Judgement Many Diagnosed with COVID-19 Are Facing

When Kelsey Y., a graduate student in Fort Worth, contracted the coronavirus, she was in shock. She had just spent six weeks in quarantine with her family and hadn’t been to the grocery store in two months. She was even interning virtually this summer. So, when a small group planned a birthday celebration at a nearby restaurant, she felt safe because her friends told her they were taking necessary precautions, as well. Plus, the state had just re-opened restaurants to 50 percent capacity, giving her further assurance to proceed with the plan. 

But a few days after the gathering with friends, one person from the group started experiencing symptoms and was waiting on test results. Then a few more days passed and additional friends were showing symptoms and getting tested. By the time Kelsey started experiencing symptoms nine days later, she learned half the group had confirmed cases of COVID-19. 

Seeing this unfold, Kelsey braced herself for the reality that she might have the virus. But nothing could prepare her for the rollercoaster of emotions she says she felt after confiding in friends and colleagues that she had tested positive.

“I did get some bad reactions from people that, in hindsight, I probably wouldn’t tell now that I know how they reacted,” she says. “People would just kind of hesitate, or be standoffish, and it made me feel like I was gross, or I was diseased; like they didn’t want to be around me ever again.”

Dustin Webb, a licensed clinical social worker and administrator at Texas Health Behavioral Health in Dallas, says reactions like this, unfortunately, might become common as the virus continues to spread, especially during such polarizing times. But these reactions shouldn’t necessarily be confused for hatred or disdain. 

“We have to remember that these reactions often boil down to a means of self-preservation for the people we tell,” Webb explains. “Ultimately, the strong friendships will last, and the ones with less depth will fade away. That’s not too different from normal, non-pandemic life if you take a step back and look at it. The pandemic may just provide a platform for speeding that up in some cases.”

Similar stories have popped up, most notably the #cabo211, or the 211 University of Texas at Austin students who vacationed in Mexico for spring break despite the state’s shelter-in-place orders. The trip resulted in 62 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and turned their Austin neighborhood into a hotspot. 

“We can’t lose our compassion for people who are sick in the midst of this. We will learn many things about ourselves and other people through the course of this, and I hope that compassion for others and ourselves is one of them.”

In an interview by Cosmopolitan, the students describe the social backlash they received not only from their friends and roommates but from total strangers. Almost overnight, the group became social pariahs, and many kept silent about going on the trip out of fear … until internet sleuths found them. 

“I got really worried when I saw my name on a Twitter list of students who allegedly went to Cabo,” one student says. “They were saying we should be blacklisted from law and medical schools. My roommate got three anonymous phone calls from people calling her [expletives]. I screenshotted the list and direct messages I got and sent them to my parents because I was scared.” 

“People posted memes on a UT page on Facebook with 45,000 followers,” another student adds. “It was like the whole school was coming together to roast this group who went on spring break, including me. I couldn’t sleep. I kept thinking I would get death threats.”

Kelsey notes that once she received some negative reactions from friends, she became much more selective about who she told, limiting her disclosure to those she’d been in contact with prior to isolation, or those she trusted completely. 

“I was scared that whoever I told would think that I had been irresponsible; that I had been doing something that I wasn’t supposed to be doing; that I wasn’t following the precautions, or that I was acting carelessly,” she explains. “So there was definitely shame that came along with it.”

Webb says it’s important to remember that, no matter how much it hurts, many times the people you tell are simply having a reaction based on fear, and they may not initially be thinking about your feelings in the moment.

“They’re thinking, ‘this person I know now poses a threat to me so I have to protect myself,’ but not all people are immediately equipped to say that with the grace that you would hope for as the one who is sick,” he explains. “Most of them are still your friends, they’re just reacting to something new and unfamiliar to them. You can drive that conversation by saying that you understand how your diagnosis may scare them or make them feel uncomfortable. But also remember that their behavior is about their reaction to what’s going on, and it’s not about you. You are not responsible for another person’s feelings, and they are not responsible for yours.” 

Thankfully, Kelsey and her friends have recovered from the virus, but she says she is still struggling with the emotional and social effects of her diagnosis. From the first day she started isolating until the day she received her negative test results, Kelsey had spent over a month in isolation. 

“It was definitely a lonely experience and that was probably the worst part of it for me. I think there’s a difference between feeling lonely and feeling isolated because when you’re isolated, there’s an element of helplessness that comes with it,” she explains. “I literally couldn’t see anyone, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to do that for at least two weeks, plus the fact that I felt like people didn’t want to be around me anyway. That combined with the physical effects of feeling bad … there were just some really long days.”

Even now that she’s better, Kelsey says she continues to worry about her relationships with friends who knew she was sick because she’s afraid they will look at her differently or continue to distance themselves out of fear of contracting the virus from her. 

Ultimately, she wants others to know that the virus is very real — more than a month after being exposed, she still does not have a complete sense of taste or smell. And if you find out someone you know tests positive, support them and don’t jump to conclusions.

“Ask them what they need and drop off groceries, even if it’s just ramen noodles and Gatorade. And leave a little note just to let them know that you care about them and that you can’t wait to hang out with them once this is all over,” she says. “Definitely don’t make them feel guilty about getting it or having it and try to be there for them regardless of your personal opinions. 

“While it might be tempting to ask a million questions about how they got it or what kind of symptoms they have, understand that this person is feeling so sick all day, every day. They’re so lonely, and they’re happy to be talking to you but it’s highly likely that the last thing they want to talk about is coronavirus,” she adds. “They probably just want to escape and laugh and get their mind off things. Check on them to the extent that you know they’re doing OK and then try to talk to them about things that aren’t coronavirus-related.” 

 

How to Help

Webb notes that connecting virtually with those who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 can be monumental in their recovery and mental health, especially if they’re experiencing shame or negative self-talk regarding their diagnosis, but some people may need more. 

“Isolating at home with nothing but your thoughts is often really taxing and can lead to anxiety and depression without outlets. While in-person treatment and support are still available right now, most of these services are also available virtually,” he explains. “Online therapy has become very sophisticated and offers multiple ways to stay connected. Group-based therapy programs that traditionally meet in person are being conducted online in therapy rooms currently. There are also free online support groups available to help, including ones focused on people diagnosed with COVID-19.”

If someone you know has been diagnosed with COVID-19 and you’re worried about how they’re dealing with the diagnosis, Webb recommends looking for changes in their normal behavior, demeanor or mood, and having a conversation with them about what they’re feeling. 

“If you have a common time you check-in, and they’re not answering or responding, or if they seem more down, withdrawn, distracted, or even more easily agitated, that could mean something is up,” he explains. “If you want someone to open up to you about what’s troubling them, be upfront and transparent about what’s on your mind. Don’t walk on eggshells. Don’t avoid. Acknowledge that you’ve seen a change, tell them you care and that you’re worried. It’s important that they realize that you are a safe space for them.”

As we continue to live our new normal during this pandemic, it’s safe to say we’re also learning how to navigate around our personal feelings and opinions regarding the pandemic. But at the end of the day, Webb adds that while these are unprecedented times, showing compassion is not unique to these circumstances. 

“We can’t lose our compassion for people who are sick in the midst of this. I don’t know anyone who would choose to become infected with this,” he adds. “We will learn many things about ourselves and other people through the course of this, and I hope that compassion for others and ourselves is one of them.”

If you or a loved one is experiencing mental health issues, a physician or licensed professional counselor can help. Find a physician or counselor near you or call 1-877-605-1651. The Texas Health Behavioral Health helpline is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week at 682-236-6023. To learn more about the services offered by our Behavioral Health centers, please visit TexasHealth.org/Behavioral-Health.

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