Shame is common side effect of COVID diagnosis

As the omicron wave subsides, many are experiencing shame and guilt for having contracted the virus and exposed their families.

Kristina Howland’s daughter Taytum was 8.5 months old when she tested positive for coronavirus.

Howland, who is vaccinated and has taken precautions throughout the pandemic to keep her family safe, was shocked by the diagnosis last December.

“Right away, my mom guilt kicked in,” Howland said. “The entire time I thought, ‘This is my fault; it was my job to protect her,’ because, of course, she’s too young to be vaccinated.”

Taytum fared well during the day, but, at night, she was coughing and shivering, her breathing heavy.

She had caught the virus from her babysitter who is vaccinated and COVID-cautious, Howland said. Still, Howland constantly felt the need to explain how her daughter became sick.

“COVID has such a negative stigma to it, that when you go to tell someone, you’re like, ‘I promise I was cautious. I promise I didn’t put her in a situation she shouldn’t have been in. It was merely her babysitter, and I just had to work,’” Howland said.

Such feelings of shame and guilt are very common and natural, Dr. Chris Palmer, a psychiatrist at McLean Hospital, told Boston 25 News.

“I usually kind of think about feelings of guilt as a wake-up call to do some self-reflection,” Palmer said. “Did I do something wrong or inappropriate in this situation? Did I fail to adhere to all of the guidelines, whatsoever? [For example], I didn’t get vaccinated, nobody else was vaccinated, somebody there was symptomatic. I should’ve known better.”

But if reasonable precautions have been taken, that shame isn’t serving any helpful purpose, Palmer explained.

“It’s not that you failed. It’s not that you were delinquent somehow,” Palmer said. “You did everything right, your family and friends potentially did everything right, and this is just a highly transmissible virus.”

The pandemic has already taken a toll on the nation’s mental health, with depression and anxiety at all-time highs. Those issues predispose people to feel shame, Palmer said.

“People are so exhausted and so burnt out from the pandemic, and that just makes them hyper-sensitive to anything that they may do wrong,” Palmer explained.

Palmer said it’s important for people to see family or gather in small settings when it’s safe to do so, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests, in order to take care of one’s mental health.

He also urges people experiencing shame to seek support from family, friends or a therapist.

Howland posted in a mothers’ group on Facebook, sharing her story and looking for support and advice.

“I almost didn’t post on Facebook, because I was like, I don’t want people to think we were irresponsible, or this came on after a raging, big party. Or we’re not vaccinated and don’t care,” Howland said. “The support that I got was overwhelming. Moms just reassured me that there wasn’t much I could do to avoid it, not to let it get me down and that their kids had gone through similar situations.”

Taytum has since fully recovered. Howland’s son, 2.5-year-old Mason, never caught the virus, nor did Howland or her husband, thanks to masking in the house, separating the kids and their toys and religiously washing and sanitizing.

“Once she started feeling better and her cough went away, it was just such a sigh of relief,” Howland said. “I was just so happy about it.”

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