WORLD FOCUS: The superspreader called ‘fatal denial’

Nowadays, the question is often asked, “Why is it so hard to control the spread of COVID-19, which has infected millions of people worldwide and killed more than a million?”

To answer this question, I turned to Dr. Michael Blumenfield, Sidney E. Frank Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at New York Medical College, now in private practice in Los Angeles.

Blumenfield, is the author of the forthcoming book, “Shrink Talk,” and one of the chapters of the book deals with the coronavirus pandemic.

In it he points out that many people are using the unconscious psychological mechanism of “denial” along with another mechanism of “rationalization” which allows certain people to avoid life-saving precautions and is leading to the death of thousands of people.

It is the upshot of serendipity that the editor of Blumenfield’s book “Shrink Talk” is Erika Fabian, a Holocaust survivor, the author of 23 books and a noted photographer who earlier this year, at the invitation of the College of William & Mary, was a speaker at several public forums.

Blumenfield, in an interview with The Virginia Gazette, explained that medical experts have clearly identified the reason that the pandemic is getting out of control. The reason is a significant number of people are not listening to the medical experts and are not using facial masks, keeping social distancing, nor are they following other precautions concerning opening businesses, restaurants, beaches, sporting and political events.

“Those people,” Blumenfield said, “do not want to get sick or spread the virus to others. Such individuals are using a very common unconscious psychological defense mechanism of “denial” to keep out of their consciousness that their behavior could be fatal to themselves and their loved ones. They use, the mechanism of “rationalization.” For example, “I am healthy and won’t get sick.”

Psychiatrists and other mental health professionals deal with the defense mechanism of denial all the time, Blumenfield said. Psychiatrists know this to be a very basic defense mechanism which protects the individual from anxiety as well as from other painful emotions, including depression. Psychotherapy chops away at this defense mechanism and helps the patient strengthen other methods of coping and dealing with issues in their life.

Currently, Blumenfield observed, during the COVID-19 pandemic, many people are using this defense mechanism as they choose not to wear masks, abide by social distancing, etc. He believes, that their behavior should be labeled “fatal denial.”

“Since the overwhelming majority of people who are using fatal denial are not in therapy, we need to find a way to address this very serious problem,” he said.

He recommends that mental health professionals need to take an active role in explaining to the public how fatal denial is creating massive life-threatening situations. In addition, he recommends, that trusted, popular figures, from the world of entertainment, sport, culture or even politics should appear in public service announcements, on TV, the internet, on billboards or posters, if possible, wearing masks, and urging others to do the same.

“The reality is,” Blumenfield said, “many people would be more influenced by such a poster than the entreaty of a person at a store entrance door, a waiter in a restaurant, or even a police officer asking them to do the right thing.”

There is an urgent need, he maintains, that the medical profession should call fatal denial what it is. “We have to mobilize our profession organizations as well as the media to try to break through this deadly defense mechanism of fatal denial.”

(Frank Shatz is a former Lake Placid resident and currently lives in Williamsburg, Virginia. He is the author of “Reports from a Distant Place,” a compilation of his selected columns.)