Mental Metaphors

By: Makenzie Becker

Last Monday, it was 80 degrees and sunny in Madison, Wisconsin.

On Wednesday, it was 68 and raining.

When I woke up on Friday, it was 36 and cloudy.

But that’s fall weather in Wisconsin, right? It’s hot one day and cold the next, sunny and then raining, beautiful and then miserable. It’s all over the place, and as Wisconsinites, we’ve learned how to take it with a grain of salt.

But let’s be real: weather that forces me to go from shorts and a tank top to a winter jacket and gloves within a matter of four days is ridiculous.

Some might call it oxymoronic.

You could maybe even say it’s juxtapositional.

There are so many words that can be used to describe the everchanging Wisconsin weather.

But the word I hear used the most is bipolar.

“This weather is so bipolar.”

I can tell you for a fact that I’ve used this phrase myself.

I can also tell you that I’m not going to be using it anymore.

I’m not going to be using it because, as Susan Sontag writes in Illness as Metaphor, “Illness is not a metaphor.”

Unfortunately, today, mental illnesses are used as metaphors all of the time.

They’re used to describe the weather, as I said before.

They’re used to describe daily events. (“I dropped my coffee.” “That’s so depressing.”)

They’re used to describe basic objects. (“Your desk is so O.C.D.”)

In every case, the mental illness-turned metaphor has a negative connotation: bipolar weather, a depressing event, an O.C.D. desk.

I believe that this, the way we speak of mental illnesses in a casual, non-mental illness context, is a huge constituent to the stigma that surrounds them.

Here’s the proof:

To begin, the linguistics of mental illness as a whole is based mostly in emotions, not facts, and this comes from society’s incompetence towards mental illnesses.

For example, during my senior year of high school, I learned for the first time that bipolar disorder is not rapidly changing moods, but instead a shift between two states: the manic state and the depressive state. While the disorder is different for everyone who has it, more often than not, there is no constant, rapid shifting between each state. Rather, each state lasts from a few days to a few months at a time.

Hence, because of a lack of factual information, bipolar disorder has been turned into a metaphor that isn’t even representative of the disorder.

Additionally, we were all taught “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” when we were little.

As we got older, we learned that that’s not true, that verbal abuse and rude remarks hurt as much and sometimes even more than physical pain.

But that’s obvious now, isn’t it?

When you tell someone that they’re horrible, that they do not deserve any of the good things that happen to them in life, you can physically see the reaction on their face, and this reaction is totally understandable; it’s expected, even.

When mental illness language is made into causal metaphors, those who understand the damage this does are expected to remain silent, as the vast majority of people do not see the  the power of their words and believe that it’s “not a big deal.”

But little by little, as these phrases get integrated into the vocabulary of our society, they create a catastrophic stigma that mental illnesses are inherently bad.

On top of that, when it comes to illnesses, injuries, or disorders, our society tends to synonymize a person with their disease.

This is done tenfold with mental illnesses, and since mental illnesses are seen in such a negative light, the people who have them are as well.

Here’s a great example of what I mean by this:

Last November, I tore my ACL playing basketball.

The love and support I received was absolutely incredible.

No one treated me like it was my fault.

My sister was diagnosed with depression when she was fifteen.

She does not get the same love and support I received.

She gets treated like her depression is her fault.

We blame the mentally ill for their mental illnesses.

We treat them like they are dangerous or high maintenance or overall unable to function in society.

We look at them like they are somehow other or less than.

But here’s the thing:

People who have mental illnesses do not want to be looked at; they want to be seen.

So, how do we reverse this stigma that is nearly invisible to society?

First of all, by paying attention to what we say.

It’s a small action that can make a big difference.

Second, by being educated.

The media-especially Hollywood-does an absolutely dreadful job of depicting mental illnesses, so I encourage everyone to do research after seeing movies with mental illness as a main theme to find what’s true and what’s only there for thematic purposes.

I’ve also included links at the bottom to some great resources about mental illness.

Third, by listening.

If someone tells you they are struggling with a mental illness, make sure that person knows that they are loved and cared for, and listen to them. Make sure their voice is heard.

Mental illness is not a popular topic of conversation, but it should be.

We can’t let the stigma silence our voices.

You are loved,



Educational Resources:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

1 comment

  • Nicely written!

    Maureen Sturm

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