Travel and war metaphors are commonly used in mental health stories

Metaphors relating to travel, war and struggles are probably the most frequently used in all fields, but particularly when it comes to diseases such as cancer or, more recently, COVID-19. A new study by a team of researchers from the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) used an analysis of Spanish language blogs written by patients and mental health professionals to examine the use of these two types of conceptual metaphors. in connection with serious problems. mental health disorders. According to his findings, published in the journal Metaphor and the Social World, both types of metaphors are used in relation to the same topics – such as mental health disorders and their symptoms, everyday life problems, medical activities, social prejudices, etc., but formulated differently. The study also highlights that they can provide both positive and negative opinions on, among other things, how to deal with mental health disorders, the emotions involved or the empowerment of patients.

These findings have implications not only for understanding the disease but also for improving communication with patients.

The results have very significant potential to change the way we approach public and professional discourses on mental health and even treatments or therapies. Promote positive uses of these metaphors, and repurpose or abandon the negatives; that is, those that have a paralyzing effect or convey negative emotions such as feelings of desolation, anxiety or vulnerability, can be very helpful.”

Marta Coll-Florit and Salvador Climent Roca, members of the GRIAL group, Faculty of Letters and Human Sciences of the UOC

Key Metaphors in Mental Health Narratives

The study was based on the analysis of approximately one million words contained in the personal blogs of 73 patients diagnosed with one of the four most common serious mental disorders – depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder – and 22 psychiatrists, psychology, nurses and social education professionals. A total of 3,204 war and travel metaphors were identified in the corpus.

“All kinds of conflicts are expressed as wars or struggles, with negative aspects presented as enemies. Likewise, many long and costly processes are expressed as paths, obstacles, steps forward, steps back , progress, etc. So, as mental illnesses are closely linked to personal and social conflict as well as the process involved (e.g. the process of recovery), we were sure that these two metaphors would also be very important in the stories. related to mental health,” the researchers said.

A way for patients to express their innermost feelings

From a quantitative perspective, the study also found that these metaphors are used more often by people with a mental health disorder themselves than by mental health professionals. According to the researchers, this “confirms the hypothesis that metaphors are used in this context to express complex and emotionally intense experiences”.

This ability to gather information about the intimate experiences of patients also confirms the effectiveness of the method used in the study (the identification of conceptual metaphors in mental health discourses) in understanding illnesses of this type. “The study clearly shows that this method of analysis is highly systematic and very useful when it comes to revealing the feelings, thoughts and attitudes of people with mental disorders and mental health professionals. In d “In other words, knowing which metaphors appear most frequently in narratives about mental health disorders provides greater insight into what patients actually think, feel and experience, giving us a better understanding of their suffering,” the authors said. researchers.

Affectivity, empowerment and positive emotions

Among aspects of mental health discourse that can have positive effects on patients, the researchers highlighted the importance of “conveying a sense of agency and control over the experience (which together define empowerment), as well as conveying positive emotions such as pride or a sense of accomplishment.” An example of such a positive use mentioned in the study is to view mental health disorders “as a traveling companion, a type of metaphor that shows acceptance and can positively impact the patient’s experience of his trouble”.

War metaphors are not necessarily negative

One of the researchers’ most surprising findings is that both types of metaphors are linked to positive and negative uses. “One would assume that war metaphors are inherently negative because they convey the idea of ​​conflict and travel metaphors are positive because they are all about progress, but that is not the case. For example, war metaphors are often about having a fighting spirit, with agency and empowerment, which can increase patients’ self-esteem and positively impact their experience,” they explained. .

In any case, the researchers also mentioned how the same subject can be approached using different metaphors, which can have positive effects depending on the objective of the communication. “For example, talking about fighting one’s fears (an enemy) is not the same as talking about gradually overcoming one’s fears (an obstacle in the way). The first expression highlights the combativeness of the patient, while the second conveys a degree of control, with the experience presented as a process of incremental improvement,” they said.

“The difference is that war metaphors can be useful in situations requiring action and energy, while those related to travel can be used to suggest an ongoing course of action with more restricted use of energy. ‘energy.”

A tool for therapists

This detailed analysis of metaphors and their meanings could also help health professionals in their therapeutic strategies. “Appropriate use of metaphors is a tool that can facilitate patient-psychotherapist communication and provide the latter with a tool to use in therapy sessions,” they said. With this in mind, the researchers created a repository of metaphors – Diccionario de metaforas de la salud mental – which is now available online.


University of Oberta de Catalunya

Journal reference:

Coll-Florit, M & Climent, S., (2022) Enemies or obstacles? Metaphors of war and travel in mental health discourse. Metaphor and social world.


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