Become a better ally by preventing microaggressions

By Jill Kuzo and Kendall Stout, Mental Health Champions Employee Resource Group

The term microaggressions has been around since the 1970s, but its meaning is still not widely known. By nature, they’re something small. But as small as they seem, microaggressions can have a significant impact on someone’s mental health. 

In recognition of Mental Health Awareness Month, it’s important to raise awareness of the unintended consequences of certain words, behaviors or actions in order to support people’s mental well-being.   

Slight changes to how we speak, behave or act can have a significant impact on the mental health of another person. Here are some common mental health microaggressions, why they can be hurtful, and how we can adjust what we say to be more sensitive to their pain: 

Microaggression Explanation Say instead
“They committed suicide.”  The phrase “committed suicide” is frowned on because it harkens back to an era when suicide was considered a sin or a crime. Today, experts encourage people to avoid the idea of choice or free will when talking about suicide because the person’s thinking is often very impaired at the time of death. Use safe and compassionate language to help challenge existing misinformation and myths.  “They died by suicide.”
“You just need to pray about it more. Have more faith and your [insert mental illness here] will get better.” For a faith-based person, this may be only part of the solution. If someone is not faith-based, this could be a mental health microaggression and a religious microaggression. Additionally, people living with mental illness need someone to listen and support them emotionally rather than being given advice on what to do.  “I am sure you’re aware of all the tools that may be able to help you. If you’d like to brainstorm some, I’m here to support you.” 
“He was out riding a bike. He can’t be depressed!”  A person with depression or anxiety might look fine on the outside, but that doesn’t mean they’re not in pain or suffering. For instance, a treatment for depression is to do normal activities they would usually enjoy but are avoiding, so being at the mall or riding a bike may in fact be quite challenging.   “It’s so good to see you out! I know it must be hard.”
“You might want to check in with your doctor and have your meds adjusted. …”  Assuming someone’s actions or mood are solely defined by their disorder and/or treatment can be invalidating for the feelings they are having in the moment.  “How are you doing? I am feeling. …” 
“I’m so OCD about….”  Misusing mental illness terminology to describe someone’s actions takes away from the impact of diagnosing the condition. While the spectrum of mental illnesses can range in severity that many of us can identify with, it’s important to respect the impact these conditions can have on people’s lives and not belittle the illnesses by using them in everyday language.  “I’m such a perfectionist.” 
 
“I can get a little in my head about things like this.” 
 
“Sometimes, when I feel like things aren’t in my control, I behave like this.” 
 
“This ritual helps calm me down.” 

Since first coined, the term itself has been debated. “Micro” can minimize the “macro” impact of the words or action. And even “aggression” may not fully encapsulate the negative effect some words or actions can have on someone. Some alternative terms are microinvalidations, exclusionary acts, subtle acts of exclusion or exclusionary action.  

Regardless of the term, we know what we can call it: a behavior that causes pain for others. Here are some actions we can all take to stand up to these behaviors for the benefit of our own mental health and the mental health of others: 

  1. Be vulnerable: Name your feelings and point out exclusionary behaviors when you see them. 
  2. Seek support: It’s important to have a safe space where you can voice what’s happening to you. 
  3. Examine your beliefs: Many biases can contribute to exclusionary behaviors. 
  4. Create safe, nonjudgmental spaces: Focus on the “aggression” rather than the “aggressor,” and focus on the feelings rather than assigning blame. 
  5. Embrace empathy: Try not to get defensive if someone points out that your words or actions are exclusionary. We can all learn and grow. 

The employee resource group supporting mental health at Clorox is committed to raising awareness of mental health issues so our teammates, our customers, our business partners, our communities, our consumers and so many others in our circle can be well and thrive.  

 


Sources: 

Taylor & Francis Online, “Microaggressions: The experience of individuals with mental illness,” Heather J. Peters, Haley N. Schwenk, Zachary R. Ahlstrom and Lyndzie N. McIalwain, April 6, 2016.

Harvard Business Review, “We Need to Retire the Term “Microaggressions,” Ruchika Tulshyan, March 8, 2022.

IRMI, “Language Matters: Why We Don’t Say “Committed Suicide,” Sally Spencer-Thomas, PsyD, MNM, September 2021.

Yahoo, “It’s Time to Stop Saying “I’m So OCD”— Here’s What to Say Instead,” editor@purewow.com (PureWow), May 20, 2021.