Mental health includes a person’s emotional, behavioral, and psychological well-being and can be affected by a wide variety of factors. Life experiences, brain chemistry, genetics, and lifestyle can all influence how someone thinks, feels, makes choices, and communicates with other people. The actions, choices, and attitudes of other people can also affect an individual’s well-being for better or for worse. Microaggressions, defined in the simplest terms as everyday verbal or nonverbal insults, can have a negative impact on the mental health of those belonging to minority groups. Minorities face a unique challenge when trying to maintain positive mental health because of the discrimination, harassment, and racism present in their everyday life. It can be difficult enough to stay mentally healthy without these added factors. Learning about microaggressions is vital to recognizing, addressing, and responding to them.
The term microaggression comes from Harvard psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce. The word was coined in 1970 and referred to Pierce’s observations of insults and slights directed at people of color by those who aren’t. Microaggression theory states that people who are disadvantaged in some way or belong to a minority group are the most susceptible to these insults.
Microaggressions are sometimes referred to as insults, assumptions, putdowns, or implicit biases. Those belonging to minority groups are most targeted by them. People of color, those in the LGBTQ+ community, older people, religious groups, people with disabilities, and more can all be affected.
A microaggression can be subtle or overt, intentional or unintentional, and verbal or nonverbal. No matter how they present, though, they are still hurtful. The different types of microaggressions are microassaults, microinvalidations, and microinsults. Each is explored in more detail below:
Microaggressions come in all shapes and sizes, but each of them can be very hurtful. Although not every insult, assumption, or stare is intentional, it doesn’t minimize the very real damage that can follow. Even subtle slights can be just as damaging as overt harassment, whether verbal or nonverbal. It can be difficult for people who aren’t affected by microaggressions to recognize how their unintentional comments or actions can harm others. However, it’s necessary to continue to learn about these things in order to approach certain people and situations with more perspective, understanding, and sensitivity.
Microaggressive behaviors are directed toward people who belong to certain underrepresented or disadvantaged groups. Here are some examples of microaggressions you may see in your workplace, at school, or out in public:
If someone gives you a micro-aggression example they have experienced, it’s important to take their word for it and practice empathy. Trying to diminish, downplay, or minimize their experiences can potentially cause even more harm. When you don’t try to understand or see a different perspective, it can communicate that you don’t see, hear, or care for the person. By showing concern and care, you can help comfort that person and reassurance them that their experience is valid.
Microaggressions can take a toll on an individual’s mental health. Some people experience them more often than others, making their effect even more impactful. Some of the potential negative effects microaggressions can have on someone’s mental health include:
If you or a loved one are experiencing suicidal thoughts, reach out for help immediately. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255 and is available 24/7.
Since many disadvantaged groups already have extra obstacles that they have to get past, microaggressions can make it even harder to cope with daily life. Microaggressions are so commonplace that there’s never a break from them. Even when someone isn’t immediately being subjected to one, the effects from previous experiences linger on. When someone is dealing with the mental health effects of microaggressions, they may go on to develop physical side effects as well such as headaches, insomnia, or high blood pressure. The result is lower functioning overall, making it more difficult to get through the day-to-day intricacies of life.
Minority groups are still subject to the same mental health problems other people face (and additional ones that are unique to them), yet they face disparities that make it harder to get care. Once they do receive care, it’s often of lower quality. They also go through situations and experiences other groups don’t have to deal with, such as being subject to microaggressions.
Vulnerable populations are less likely to get the mental health care they need for a variety of factors. Vulnerable populations include ethnic minorities, the elderly, those of low socioeconomic status, people belonging to the LGBTQ+ community, certain religious circles, people with disabilities, and more. Research shows that these groups often have a lack of resources, receive a lower quality of care, are more likely to live in poverty, and receive fewer educational opportunities. Reasons for these disparities include the stigma of mental health problems, discrimination, systemic racism, lack of awareness, geographical obstacles, and providers who don’t understand the challenges these groups face.
By combatting microaggressions and working to address the disparities that exist in the mental health care system, we can hope to see positive system-wide change. Although these disparities have existed for decades and there’s still a lot of work to be done, steps are already being taken to help improve the lives of disadvantaged groups. Moving forward, addressing the inequalities in the healthcare system and working to improve public perception are two vital factors for improving access to quality mental health care for everyone.
Microaggressions can be hard to spot, especially if you aren’t familiar with them. That being said, those belonging to minority groups are more used to noticing them because they often experience them daily. So, in general, you can recognize microaggressions most readily when they’re directed at you. However, the more familiar you are with the different themes of microaggressions, the more likely you are to spot them. If you see or hear something that sounds directed at someone belonging to a minority group, it could be a microaggression.
Even if someone isn't trying to be intentionally hurtful, they can still perpetuate harmful statements or other nonverbal communications. If you hear or experience a microaggression, you can react in one of three ways:
The more society can recognize microaggressions, the better we can respond to them. Realizing that microaggressions exist everywhere is an important step in this process. Although something might seem small, meaningless, or unintentional, that doesn’t eliminate the harm it can cause. One of the most important things you can do as an individual is comfort and validate those who have been targeted by microaggressions. Even if you can’t put a stop to the slights, insults, and snubs that are causing them harm, you can still be a source of positivity and encouragement when they’re feeling down. It’s important that those who are subjected to microaggressions have trusted people they can turn to. You can do your part by being one of those people in their corner.
Self-care is a critical part of maintaining positive mental health, especially as a minority. You may experience daily fatigue and stress from microaggressions, harassment, and other forms of discrimination. This can be exhausting, which is why prioritizing yourself is so vital. Whether you’re going through something difficult or aren’t having a particularly hard time right now, it’s never a bad time to take care of yourself. Prevention is key, and it’s better to work on your mental well-being now than wait until you’re feeling really down. Here are some ways you can look after your mental health daily and in the long run:
Each of these things can improve your mental health over time and help you build confidence in yourself. Over time, little changes can become permanent habits that you barely have to think about anymore. Keep in mind that everyone needs something different to maintain a positive state of mind and stay healthy. If you’re trying to feel better on your own, but you feel your mental state worsening or not improving, it may be time to see a professional.
Navigating the world as a minority can present some unique challenges. You may be used to handling everything on your own, but you shouldn’t have to. Whether you need to work through a specific issue, cope with a trauma, or just want someone to talk to about life, therapy could be a helpful option to consider. BetterHelp is a platform that provides mental health services entirely online. If you have a busy schedule, are concerned about being able to afford therapy, or live in a rural area, BetterHelp might be the best choice for you.
Once you sign up on the platform and get connected with a therapist, you can chat using a messaging feature, a video call, or a phone call. Therapy is important to have access to no matter who you are or what you’re going through. If you’d like to give it a try, don’t hesitate to reach out to BetterHelp right away. We are here to help.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What are the different types of microaggressions?
There are three different types of microaggressions. They are microassault, microinsult, and microinvalidation. Microassault is as the name implies— an explicit attack based on someone’s identity, which can be verbal or nonverbal. The purpose is to harm the other person in some way, so the attacker may use name-calling, be discriminatory on purpose, or leave the other person out deliberately.
Microinsults are when someone uses a communication style that is insensitive to another person based on their identity. The one using the microinsult might be abusive, insensitive, or belittling with their words, but they can also portray these things nonverbally as well. For example, refusing to make eye contact or turning one’s body away from another individual could be a microinsult.
Microinvalidations are the final form of microaggressions. They are characterized by words or actions that invalidate the very real experiences of marginalized individuals. Usually, this happens when a minority shares a difficult experience they had with a more privileged individual, and then the situation is contributed to something other than their identity (whether it be race, gender, age, etc.). In this way, the confidant downplays the person’s thoughts and feelings about the situation in an insensitive or even ignorant manner.
How do you identify microaggressions?
While some microaggressions are easy to identify, others are more hidden and difficult to spot if you’re unfamiliar with them. They can be intentional, unintentional, subtle, or overt. They might be hostile, demeaning, or negative verbal messages that are directed at someone based solely on their identity—but they can also be nonverbal signals. You can identify microaggressions through the various themes they can have. For example, here are some common microaggression themes to be aware of:
Microaggressions happen every day. Minorities are usually more able to identify them than others because they experience them so often. Learning about the different kinds of microaggressions and how to spot them can help you speak up when you see or hear them.
Can microaggressions be nonverbal?
Yes, microaggressions can be nonverbal just as easily as they can be communicated verbally. While they can still be intentional or unintentional, they’re hurtful, nonetheless. Below are some examples of nonverbal microaggressions:
Microaggressions can make people feel small, unappreciated, and undervalued whether they’re verbal or nonverbal. If you notice them, speak up. You can also help by being a comfort to the person who was targeted and helping them feel seen and less alone.