Microaggressions towards people affected by mental health problems: a scoping review

S. Barber*, P. C. Gronholm, S. Ahuja, N. Rüsch, G. Thornicroft

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

33 Citations (Scopus)
163 Downloads (Pure)


Aims. This review aims to understand the scope of the literature regarding mental health-related microaggressions towards people affected by mental health problems.

Methods. A scoping review was conducted to explore this question. Four electronic health-oriented databases were searched alongside Google Scholar. As per scoping review principles, the inclusion criteria were developed iteratively. The results of included studies were synthesised using a basic narrative synthesis approach, utilising principles of thematic analysis and thematic synthesis where appropriate.

Results. A total of 1196 records were identified, of which 17 met inclusion criteria. Of these, 12 were peer-reviewed journal articles, three were research degree theses and two were book chapters. Six included empirical studies were qualitative, four were quantitative and two employed a mixed-methods design. Within these, five qualitative studies aimed to describe the nature of mental health microaggressions experienced by people with mental health problems. Themes identified in a thematic synthesis of these five studies included stereotypes about mental illness, invalidating peoples' experience and blaming people with mental illness for their condition. The included publications informed on the perpetration of mental health microaggressions by family, friends, health professionals and social workers. In addition, two studies created scales, which were then used in cross-sectional surveys of the general public and community members to assess characteristics, such as right-wing political views, associated with endorsement of mental health microaggressions. A consensus definition of microaggressions emerged from the included studies: microaggressions are brief, everyday slights, snubs or insults, that may be subtle or ambiguous, but communicate a negative message to a target person based on their membership of a marginalised group, in this case, people affected by mental illness.

Conclusions. The study of mental health microaggressions is an emerging, heterogeneous field, embedded in the wider stigma and discrimination literature. It has been influenced by earlier work on racial microaggressions. Both can be ambiguous and contradictory, which creates difficulty defining the boundaries of the concept, but also underpins the key theoretical basis for the negative impact of microaggressions. Mental illness is a more concealable potential type of identity, so it follows that the reported perpetrators of microaggressions are largely friends, family and professionals. This has implications for intervening to reduce the impact of microaggressions. There are several challenges facing research in this area, and further work is needed to understand the impact of mental health microaggressions on people affected by mental health problems.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere82
Pages (from-to)1-11
JournalEpidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences
Early online date16 Dec 2019
Publication statusPublished - 2020


  • Community mental health
  • discrimination
  • mental health
  • mental illness stigma


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