The Public's Health

Battling demons? When it comes to mental illness, language matters

We’ve seen it written dozens of times in the past week: Robin Williams was battling demons. What does this mean, anyway?

For some reason, we tend to use mystical metaphors to describe the suffering of those with a mental illness, particularly depression. These images play off of anachronistic views about the nature of mental disorders. It was once thought that persons with mental illnesses were in fact possessed by demons and should be exiled on the ship of fools, exorcised, burned at the stake or boarded in dungeon-like institutions. This way of thinking permeates contemporary views of mental illness, as both the words we use to describe depression and our awful mental health care system betrays. Patients themselves have internalized the mystical ethos of mental illness. They too regularly describe their illness in terms of a futile battle with the demons of depression, addiction, or other diseases of the brain.

Supernatural metaphors obfuscate the objective reality of mental disorder and perpetuate the belief that mental illness is merely a sickness of the soul, or an existential, abstract battle between the forces of good and evil.  Such a view about mental illness is both foolish and dangerous.