Apr 04, 2019

Improving Student Wellness by Understanding Microaggressions

Microaggressions are interactions, whether intentional or not, that convey in subtle but powerful ways negative messages about specific groups of people. Such interactions can create harm for not only the person or people at the receiving end, but ultimately, the community as a whole. On April 9, I will lead a webinar to talk about the surprising consequences of these often overlooked actions.

Here are some examples of microaggressions:
  • “You are so smart, why didn’t you become a doctor?” Said to a nurse.
  • “They hired you only because you are minority.” Said to a black nursing faculty member.
  • “You are a credit to your race.” Said to Latino nursing student.

We’ve found strong relationships between microaggressions, and depression and anxiety. In other words, the more often an individual experiences microaggressions, the higher the likelihood that they will develop symptoms of depression and anxiety.

We also know that stress increases allostatic load—the “wear and tear” the body undergoes in handling stress, associated with cardiovascular disease and diabetes. (For more insights on this, read “Why Discrimination Is a Health Issue.”)

That microaggressions are a health issue means they may impact the pipeline of nurses coming from underrepresented backgrounds.

Consider a student who experiences microaggressions, which create stress that, cumulatively and over time, wears down cognitive function, impairs productivity, and negatively impacts relationships. All of this can contribute to diminished academic performance. In sum, microaggressions “wear down” the individual, who then experiences a depletion of energy, which affects one’s ability to learn and perform.

A natural and reasonable response to microaggressions or threats to one’s identity is to avoid the situation. We see this in health professions schools when students don’t respond to emails, stop coming to class, or withdraw from school. We also see this as students detach themselves  from classroom discussions and essentially put their heads down to survive our programs. One underrepresented minority student described their response to frequent microaggressions in nursing school, “I remind myself to keep my head down and keep my mouth shut—not draw any attention to myself.”

The “Improving Student Wellness by Understanding Microaggressions” webinar will provide data about health professions students — nursing and medical students — that demonstrate the prevalence of microaggressions and their impact on student satisfaction and well-being. The webinar will also include qualitative data that describe how underrepresented health professions students experience microaggressions and these students’ perceptions about how they impact academic performance and well-being.

Finally, we share strategies that individuals and organizations can use to promote inclusive learning environments.

In holding this webinar, we hope to increase people’s awareness of these harmful slights, cuts that might be invisible to others, and thus encourage greater efforts to help students from underrepresented populations thrive and reach their full academic potential.

Kupiri Ackerman-Barger is assistant clinical professor and co-director of the Interprofessional Teaching Scholars Program at the University of California, Davis, Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing, and an adviser to the Campaign for Action Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Steering Committee.