We see metaphor everywhere in mental health. Sylvia Plath described her depression as a bell jar:
“Because wherever I sat—on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok—I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.”
Winston Churchill spoke of his black dog:
“I think this man might be useful to me – if my black dog returns. He seems quite away from me now – it is such a relief. All the colours come back into the picture.”
The black dog is a common metaphor for depression or melancholy. Mental health charity, Sane, run a Black Dog campaign:
“The purpose of the campaign is to give people a language in which to express their inner feelings of anxiety, depression and loneliness, to talk more openly and seek help.”
But it isn’t just the famous, the writers and the campaigners who use language creatively. Many people suffering from a range of mental health problems describe their stories and experiences in powerful metaphorical terms.
The Intangibility of Mental Health
Mental health problems can be deeply intangible. Many people have said depression would be so much easier to handle if we changed colour when we are depressed. This would provide them (and others) with a tangible sign that things weren’t right.
The Inadequacy of Medical Language
In addition, the language we use to talk about mental health is woefully inadequate. The word ‘depression’ has become part of the everyday language people use to describe feeling sad or low. It can be hard to describe the distinction between feeling sad (a natural response to aspects of life) and suffering from depression.
As a result, people who have never had a mental health problem might fail to understand why you can’t ‘cheer up’. And people who have depression often feel they are a failure for being ‘unnaturally’ sad or incapable. A greater linguistic distinction would be helpful. Unipolar seems to be becoming a more popular term – purely to get away from the overused ‘depression’.
The Shared Experience
But whatever word we use, it still doesn’t explain what it actually feels like. Metaphor can help to pin these feelings down. It allows us to portray something that can’t easily be reduced to simple facts.
We can use the language of shared experience to transfer a feeling. We explain it in terms of something else, something outside of us that others have also experienced. Doing this means both people can take a step back and examine it as something separate and easier to relate to. Everyone knows what it’s like to be in fog or can imagine what it feels like to be trapped behind glass.
The endless potential of metaphor also allows us to identify the variations of experience that form part of a mental health problem. This is a step towards understanding and managing them. For example, if someone is able to say ‘today is a foggy day, and that’s usually followed by days behind a glass wall – but I’ve noticed that the glass wall phase only comes if I have been drinking’, then they are in a good position to make decisions and take positive steps forward. Metaphor helps people describe their experience and make those more detailed distinctions.
Reframing the Negative
Language and metaphor can not only be used to describe a negative feeling but to reframe it. I have heard a relationship described as ‘spread thin, squashed and suffocated’ by someone suffering from depression. The language powerfully portrays the destructive nature of a mental health problem on relationships and is something others, including the other person involved, can relate to and understand.
Perhaps as part of helping this couple feel more positive about their future, their experience could be described as ‘struggling with and learning to manage the introduction of a difficult new ball into the juggling act that is any relationship’.
Suddenly, while not completely positive, the experience feels like something that has an end, something recognisably difficult but something that can be managed and something that they are not the only people to experience.
And people react positively to the recognition of a shared feeling – whether it’s a poem they feel captures their experience, a personal story that they can relate to or some written support online. A good metaphor shows that someone else really understands.