CEUnits Blog

Microaggressions and Mental Health

January 16th, 2022

Microaggressions manifest as subtle but pervasive forms of prejudice. They may be barely perceptible, but microaggressions are damaging and dangerous. For many people, they constitute daily abuse. As mental health and social workers, it’s important to identify and confront microaggressions. Recognizing them will help you to challenge them institutionally, professionally, and personally.

Our ability to defend against microaggressions depends on vulnerability and resilience. For people who are already dealing with mental health issues, the impact of microaggressions can be overwhelming. Prejudice against mental illness is deep-rooted in our language and cultural norms. People don’t always realize the extent to which they are suffering from microaggressions. They can be painful, but hard to pinpoint. This is true in both clinical settings and our day-to-day experience of, and participation in, microaggressions.

Implicit and Explicit Bias

Mental illness microaggressions are varied. They often focus on either invalidating people’s experiences or blaming people for their condition. They may include an implicit or explicit assumption that someone may be violent, dangerous, and volatile. Or, helpless, incapable, and inferior. These are all alienating and damaging assumptions. They are also often inescapable for people dealing with mental health issues. Mental health microaggressions are perpetrated by family, friends, health professionals, and social workers.

Often, microaggressions relating to mental health take the form of a compliment. “You’re doing so well!”. Or, “but you don’t seem crazy?” They can be all-pervasive and are often ingrained within people’s daily experiences. This applies to all walks of life, from the clinician’s couch to the Christmas dinner table. How can we make space for working with microaggressions? How do we get better at noticing them, and calling them out?

Noticing and Confronting Microaggressions

We need to talk about microaggressions. Make space for talking about them with your clients. With your family and friends. Get more and more versed in knowing what to look for. You might ask yourself, do I experience microaggressions? If you belong to a minority group, you likely do. Do you notice when they happen, and what do you do to deal with them? Is there an element of prejudice at play, in the way that someone is speaking or being spoken to? How might you help to challenge that? Listen to your clients. Unpack the specifics about the types of microaggressions that they experience.

Combating with Vulnerability and Resilience

Once you’re able to identify what a microaggression looks and feels like, you can start to work with them. Work with your clients, your colleagues, and friends to legitimize microaggressions. Define clear boundaries to help them feel competent when addressing everyday prejudices. This may involve challenging people head-on, or it may mean being better able to meet microaggressions with compassion. Removing their harmful impact calls for a combination of strength and compassion. Vulnerability and resilience can dissolve both the appearance and impact of microaggressions.

Barber, S., Gronholm, P., Ahuja, S., Rüsch, N., & Thornicroft, G. (2020) “Microaggressions towards people affected by mental health problems: A scoping review.” Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences, 29, E82. doi:10.1017/S2045796019000763

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