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  • Writer's pictureBrandon Elliott

Microaggressions and Mental Health

It's Mental Illness Awareness week, and I believe discussions regarding mental health are so important. For this blog, we're going to discuss something that may not come to mind when talking about mental health, but it is the root of many mental health challenges: microaggressions.

When we comprehend the definition of microaggressions and understand how pervasive they are, the more we become aware of just that: they are incredibly pervasive, and we are probably guilty of perpetuating them ourselves. So why are we talking about microaggressions during mental health awareness week? For starters, microaggressions are correlated and associated with increased mental health challenges. Furthermore, researchers in mental health and psychology have also established causation. That's right. Microaggressions can cause mental health ailments. If you've taken any research methods course, you've probably heard time and time again that it's easy to prove correlation, but it's a tall order to establish causation. A famous example is ice cream sales and crime. The data broadly found that when ice cream sales go up, so too does crime. Does this mean that ice cream causes crime? Of course not; there's simply a correlation. Not so with microaggressions and poor mental health; there is a causal link.

At the surface level, saying that microaggressions cause mental health concerns might sound blatantly obvious. After all, what is stress over time? Depression. What is emotional harm over time? Trauma. Microaggressions are harmful and stressful to the person falling victim to them. Now imagine hearing microaggressions multiple times per day, day after day. That is simply traumatic, and we need to work together to stop it. I fear that microaggressions are dismissed because they are often brief, temporary, and isolated. However, it's the additive, cumulative, and repetitive exposure over time that is the concern.

My goal in this blog is to provide you with strategies to identify microaggressions and intervene when they occur. My ultimate hope is that you walk away from this blog feeling ready and able to operationalize these techniques so that, together, we can stop microaggressions. Let's dive in.

Disclosure: This blog does not constitute medical or therapeutic advice. Please seek professional help if you find yourself in crisis. If you do not know where to go to seek help, contact me, and I'll refer you to resources.


Defining Microaggressions

Research shows that while many people recognize or think they know what microaggressions are, they are not the best at defining it accurately. To make matters more complicated, researchers and mental health professionals struggle to agree on a uniform definition. I'll present a synthesized definition that draws upon a few leading scholars in microaggression research:

"A microaggression is a brief verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignity that communicates hostile, derogatory, or negative slights and insults towards individuals of underrepresented status. Microaggressions can be intentional or unintentional but are often delivered by individuals without awareness, thought, or knowledge."

~ Applebaum, 2019; Berk, 2017; Súarez-Orozco et al., 2015

What I appreciate about this definition is that it is inclusive of microaggressions that extend beyond race. In several studies, individuals thought microaggressions were subtle acts of racism. However, microaggressions impact numerous underrepresented individuals. For example, addressing a group of people as "ladies and gentlemen" may be harmless to most, but a demonstrable microaggression to the gender non-binary person in the room. I also appreciate this definition as it accounts for what is said and what is not said. When a restaurant host says "welcome" to the person walking in but entirely ignores the person entering in a wheelchair, that is a microaggression. This definition also accounts for environmental matters, which are perhaps the most difficult to identify and the most challenging to dismantle as they are often systemically integrated into our lives. Examples could include being an Asian-American student attending a college where every building is named after a white person.

Identifying Microaggressions

While microaggressions can take many forms, psychologists have identified three main types: microassaults, microinsults, and microinvalidations.

Microassaults are when a person intentionally acts in a discriminatory way while also maintaining social norms by not being offensive. What I tell students is that if you hear the following phrases, it's a textbook microassault microaggression: "Not to be racist, but...". "Not to sound homophobic, but...". "I'm not racist, but...". Another tell-tale sign is when someone says something discriminatory but then says, "I'm just kidding."

Microinsults are comments or behaviors that are unintentionally discriminatory. Here's an example I often see in classrooms: "Hector, you're Mexican, right? Can you help the choir pronounce this Spanish phrase?" Or something I heard in my doctor's office: "Wow, you're the doctor? You must be making your people proud." Another example would be telling a female manager, "I want to talk to the real manager." Other common ones you may hear: "You speak English so well!" Or "Where are you from, originally?" Other examples might occur if the security guard at a convenience store decides to follow around the person of color innocently shopping or when you lock your car doors when you see a person of color walking down the sidewalk. Another more obvious example would be using derogatory phrases in colloquial speech, such as: "The weather is so bipolar today," or "That's so gay."

Microinvalidations are the most problematic as they thrive off of internal biases. As such, they are the most common and also the most difficult to identify. Microinvalidations serve to invalidate or undermine the experiences of a certain group of people. They are often disguised as empathy, but it's far from empathetic. A resounding microinvalidation often heard these days is, "America is not racist." Another example might include a young person saying, "Old people had it so easy." Or saying something like, "People in wheelchairs are lazy." Ones that drive me nuts: "There is only one race—the human race" or "I don't see color." Other examples include when someone tries to argue that the playing field is even by saying something like, "Well, I was raised in a poor family, and I still became successful and stayed out of trouble."

As I provide examples, perhaps you have realized that you say some of these things frequently. It may very well come from a place of sincere intention, but they do not function that way on the receiving end. Take a few moments to think of microaggressions you might perpetuate regularly. Have you heard any from others recently? If none come to mind, make it a goal for yourself to be more aware of them tomorrow. I promise you: they happen frequently. The more we can identify microaggressions as they occur, the more we can work together to effectuate positive change.

Microaggression Intervention

We all want someone to be there for us and advocate for us. It's human nature. People who fall victim to microaggressions need people in a more privileged position to step in and stand up when microaggressions occur. Many social phenomena arise in our daily lives, and two, in particular, are fascinating and applicable to microaggressions: diffusion of responsibility and mere exposure effect. Let's discuss both and how they relate to intervention strategies.

Diffusion of Responsibility

Diffusion of Responsibility is also known as Bystander Effect. The larger the group of people, the less likely any individual is inclined to act. It's a fundamental attribution error that we as humans make: "someone else will do it." One of the textbook examples cites a medical emergency that occurred in a large public facility. Everyone assumed that someone else called 911. Unfortunately, over 15 minutes went by before someone finally yelled out, "Did anyone call 911?!" Which then prompted someone to pick up their phone and call for help. Sadly, it was too late by that point.

The Bystander Effect plagues large companies as well. When initiatives roll out, workers may bury their heads in the sand, waiting for someone else to champion the rollout phase. It's the typical "someone else will handle it" mentality. You may see this same mentality during election cycles ("My one vote won't make a difference"). So how does Bystander Effect relate to microaggressions?

You've probably been in a situation where something like this has happened. You see someone doing something inappropriate, and you feel inclined to say something, but you bite your tongue. You wait, hope, and wish that someone else will say something. You look around the room to see if anyone else is noticing the same thing. You internally bargain with yourself and may say things like, "Okay, if they do one more thing, then I'll say something." Eventually, the moment has passed, and your opportunity to intervene has come and gone. You move on with your day, but the person on the receiving end of microaggressions lives with those scars.

But what if I told you that if you happened to build up the courage to speak up and intervene, that bravery is contagious? It quantifiably has a spreading factor of greater than 2. This brings me to the mere exposure effect.

Mere Exposure Effect

This phenomenon is relatively straightforward. The more someone is exposed to a behavior, the more likely they will exhibit that same behavior. (Sidebar: This speaks to the importance of modeling, which I've discussed in my talk at CSUF regarding social cognitive theory). To be clear, inaction is a behavioral choice. When people are bystanders to microaggressions and choose inaction, that is a behavior that is chosen and contagious. It makes it increasingly less likely that anyone else will say something. But here is the part that gives me hope: if someone intervenes and says something, it is more likely that someone else will say something. It also subtly draws awareness to what is acceptable and not acceptable.

Here's a prime example that happened a few years ago, and it's something I still fondly think about: a student walked into the building, and a student said, "Wow, the weather is so bipolar recently." Without hesitation, I responded, "Can you think of another adjective to describe the weather, please?" The student paused, thought of a word, and said, "Irregular?" And I affirmed, "That's a much better word choice!" In this moment, I chose to intervene. Through the lens of psychology, the diffusion of responsibility stopped with me. After this moment, everyone moved on with their day; I didn't think twice about it until a month or so later. In my classroom, a different student said, "The weather this week has been so bipolar." Before I even had the chance to intervene, another student (who was a witness to my intervention a month prior) said, "That's not a good word choice," and the microaggressor said, "Oooh, you're right. The weather has just been all over the place; that's what I meant to say." This story illustrates the power of intervention and social phenomena. When I chose to intervene the first time, I signaled to that student in an affirmative way that their word choice is not acceptable. All of the surrounding students (bystanders) subconsciously registered that 1) using the word "bipolar" to describe the weather is simply inaccurate and not acceptable and 2) speaking up when they hear the word "bipolar" used inappropriately is desirable behavior. The more people see instances of intervention, the more likely they will intervene.

Can you think of a moment where you built up the courage to say something and intervene? Now I want to ask you a follow-up question: who modeled that behavior for you? It's always someone. We also must remember who is on the receiving end of these microaggressions. The research shows that they are often hoping, pleading, that someone else will take notice and say something. In a study that surveyed over 25,000+ LGBTQIA+ identified college students, 91% percent said they heard the phrase "that's so gay" in the college classroom, and their instructor did nothing. Of that 91%, 72% said that they did not feel they belonged on campus and considered transferring to another institution. 33% of them did transfer. Those are staggering figures that all stemmed from the inaction of someone in a position of privilege.

Catching Our Microaggressions

Chances are, you probably let a few microaggressions slip out every day. As you develop your awareness of them, you'll likely be able to catch them in the moment rather than let them go by unrecognized. You can also be your own intervention. For example, the other day, I referred to a group of sopranos and altos as "ladies." As soon as I said that, I said, "I apologize for that. I should have addressed you all as treble voices." One might argue that the apology was unnecessary. Still, I wanted the diffusion of responsibility to stop with me, and I wanted everyone in that room to know that our gender non-binary students belong and that we won't tolerate discriminatory language—no matter how subtle.

Another habit I've instilled: Any time I'm about to say, "Not to sound [...], but..." I simply stop what I'm saying. Because if you have to say it isn't [...], news flash: it is. You can do the same when you hear others say that. On a recent hiring committee I served on, someone said, "Not to sound insensitive, but..." and I immediately intervened and said, "If you have to preface with that, it's probably insensitive; please keep that comment to yourself." Imagine the signaling that occurred in that room!


Wrap Up

Microaggressions were dismissed by psychologists and mental health professionals for years because they appear to be harmless. Heck, even today, a small cohort of researchers firmly believe microaggressions do not exist. But the overwhelming body of research demonstrably illustrates that they are frequent, pervasive, and cause several mental health challenges for those who are repeatedly victims of microaggressions. One might argue that microaggression intervention won't eliminate the underlying biases that trigger these subtle or unconscious offenses. There is a level of correctness to that assertion. But when we talk about inequity and injustice, we aren't talking about changing minds (though that would certainly be a desirable outcome). We are talking about changing behaviors. By changing behaviors, there's the chance that we might change minds as well. After all, learning is a change in behavior: change the behavior --> change the mind. So, if there's any takeaway, it's that microaggression identification and intervention are essential and that your choice to act can positively impact the lives of others, thanks to social phenomena. If you are in a position of privilege, use that to positively impact the lives of others. So, join me: let's see if we can positively effectuate change, one microaggression intervention at a time. It makes a difference.

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