Pioneering repository aims to raise visibility and awareness about people with mental illnesses

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Metaphors are not just literary devices for writers to embellish their texts. They are linguistic tools used in everyday life, mostly with the aim of better understanding and explaining the reality of the world around us. Researchers at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) have created the first Mental Health Metaphor Dictionary, a pioneering repository that gathers and exemplifies the most important conceptual metaphors used in Spanish by people with severe mental illness, mainly schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Compulsive disorder. The repository is based on first-person accounts of what it’s like to live with a particular mental disorder and can be useful for mental health communicators and professionals, for relatives of people diagnosed with one of these disorders, and even for people with the disorder themselves. .

According to Marta Cole-Florit and Salvador Clement Roca, researchers from the Linguistic Applications Interuniversity Research Group (GRIL) of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, who coordinated the development and construction of the repository, “It is a tool to raise visibility and awareness about the suffering of people with mental illness in society. We believe this dictionary can help us all reflect on the way we talk about mental health and realize the power of our words.”

Metaphors are not neutral

The dictionary is one of the outcomes of the MOMENT project, which seeks to identify metaphors and underlying concepts used in mental health. The researchers said: “The metaphors we use are not neutral, but have the ability to highlight certain aspects of reality while potentially obscuring others. They may reveal latent ideas that do not come overtly in our speech, but may be filtered through figurative language. For example, saying ‘you have to fight your illness’ is not the same as saying ‘you have to live with your illness’: the first metaphor emphasizes the struggle between the person and the disorder, whereas the second emphasizes the individual’s acceptance of their situation.”

One of the main research conclusions of the project is that such metaphors can have beneficial or harmful uses in public discourse and in the discourse of affected individuals and those who interact with them. “Beneficial uses are those that express empowerment, control, or positive emotions; in other cases, they see a problem presented by isolating negative aspects from the situation as a whole,” they explain. Metaphors that serve these purposes are called “empowerment metaphors” and are recommended for use “in public discourse and in relationships with people with mental illness.” The researchers added that “their use should be encouraged by people with this disorder to avoid pejorative views of their situation.”

A window into the feelings of people with mental disorders

The dictionary is organized alphabetically and thematically into three broad areas: Metaphors of Living with a Mental Disorder, Metaphors of Communication and Social Context, and Metaphors of Medicine and Professional Practice. All metaphors are grouped around different key ideas and come with several examples. As the researchers explain, by systematically and exemplifying the metaphors used by these people, we can gain deeper insight into what they “really think and experience.” It’s a way for them to “feel more understood and less alone, to realize that their feelings and experiences are shared by more people.”

Benefits of blogs and social media

One of the main features of the collection is that all the metaphors are taken from texts posted on blogs or X (formerly Twitter) in Spanish. These communication channels have an important advantage over other written media. “The author’s words are not filtered by an external interviewer, but come from a genuine and spontaneous desire to share a live experience on social media. Additionally, individuals can use the relative anonymity of the Internet to reveal things they would not. For example, discussions in a face-to-face research setting. do. For this reason, the range of metaphors found is much greater than in previous similar studies.”

This method has been useful in collecting many metaphors in the repository that criticize the medical profession or highlight the suffering caused by social stigma and discrimination, showing how “patients seek greater sympathy and understanding of their suffering from both medical personnel and the wider community” . In this regard, the researchers emphasized that the dictionary could be valuable in promoting a “more respectful discourse” on mental health by public institutions and the press.

A tool for detecting psychopathology

Finally, the Mental Health Metaphor Dictionary can be used as a gateway to identifying psychopathology. “Knowing which conceptual metaphors are most commonly used to express emotional distress may help families or people close to victims identify potential disorders,” the researchers explained. Likewise, although it cannot be used directly as a diagnostic tool, it can be used “to identify the stage of the patient’s disorder according to the metaphor used or to analyze whether therapy has been successful”.

A pioneering initiative

This collection of metaphors is the first of its kind. Although English text has many domain-independent repertoires of conceptual metaphors, other languages ​​have very few domain-specific repertoires. In fact, in a review conducted by UOC researchers, they found only two repositories focused on specific topics: knowledge and health. “While these subject repositories are potentially the most useful to society, they are the rarest,” they conclude.


Journal Reference:

Coll-Florit, M., & Clement, S. (2023). Metaphorical Repository: The Case for Mental Health Metaphor Dictionary. Digital scholarship in humanities.

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