This summer is like last summer: We (a homelessness and housing agency) have had very few Covid cases in the past month or so. If this year is like last year, our reprieve will end in mid-autumn.
With this lull, I received recommendations to send out information about the current state of the pandemic as it relates to our agency. I hemmed and hawed before writing the crappy first draft: Everyone is tired and no one wants to read another e-mail. In this draft I waffled about commentary about vaccinations.
While vaccination rates in the Seattle-King County area are around 70% (and thus higher than other parts of the country), this doesn’t mean that everyone has been eager to receive a vaccine. There are people who have made a firm decision to forever decline it. There are also people who remain unsure.
I have felt disappointed and weary upon hearing the disdain of leaders and experts towards people who have not gotten vaccinated. I understand their frustration: No one wants to see people get sick and die. There are many ways to die and dying from Covid-19 is an undesirable way to leave this world.
That being said, scolding or berating people to make a specific choice is rarely (if ever) effective. If someone tells you that you are selfish because you won’t eat vegetables, that probably won’t increase the chances that you will eat vegetables. You might instead avoid this specific someone: Who wants to hear that they are a selfish person? (You can replace eating vegetables with any other behavior, identity, or choice: You are a selfish person because you choose to believe in liberal political ideas. You are a selfish person because you think abortion is wrong. You are a selfish person because you want to defund the police. You are a selfish person because you believe that Jesus was crucified for your sins. Calling someone selfish rarely promotes inquiry or conversation.)
People have shared with me a wide variety of reasons as to why they don’t want to get vaccinated. Some of those same people end up getting vaccinated… maybe because of our conversation, maybe not. I suspect that most didn’t even share all of their reasons with me because they might have felt embarrassment if they did.
If someone is willing to talk with you about a choice they want to make, that also means that they are talking with themselves about that very choice. Any conversation you have with them may carry on in your absence.
I don’t know if this is actually an adage in psychiatry, though I recall several people sharing this while I was in training: As long as someone is alive, there is still hope. Things can still change. People want to make their own choices, though; no one likes coercion. People aren’t stupid, either: They often know when someone is using force to try to change their minds or behaviors. (This use of force doesn’t have to be dramatic either: It can be a simple statement like, “I need loyalty.“)
As long as someone is still alive, there is still hope, and we can use that hope to keep the conversation going. People will share their worries with you if they are willing to give you the chance to change their minds. They will only give you that chance if they have some trust in you. They will have some trust in you if you have genuine interest in their worries and beliefs. People want to be understood. People want dignity.
You may fear that there isn’t enough time: What if they get infected with Covid-19 tomorrow and die next week? Maybe if we put more pressure on people, they will move faster.
Alternatively, if we put undue pressure on people, they may choose to never speak to us again. Any time that we did have is now completely gone. You can play the long game or you can prematurely end the game.
To be clear, I’m not saying any of this is easy or that a select few of us have magical abilities and endless patience to help people change their minds. I do, however, have experience working with people who were not making choices that I wish they would make: People who were living outside and refused to move into housing due to beliefs that were not rooted in reality. People who were using drugs and alcohol for many years. People who declined to take medication even though literally everyone else witnessed their improved health, wellbeing, and function when they did so.
Sighing and making exasperated comments at people who are living outside rarely makes them move into housing faster. Yelling at people who are using drugs and alcohol almost never makes them stop using. Forcing people to take medications does not make medications suddenly more appealing to people who usually refuse them.
Am I fully vaccinated? Yes. Do I wish more people would accept the Covid vaccines? Yes. Do I think threats or domination, even in slight forms, will succeed? No. At this point, efficiency no longer seems effective.