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All things are subject to interpretation; whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power not of truth.” -Friedrich Nietzsche

The act of communicating through language whether it is through speech, objects, literature, photographs, music, etc., does not fully translate between persons because individual perception and association re-organizes and interprets information in such a way that restricts absolute mutual understanding. While written language seems to be more constant than manners of speech, meta-messages, or the indirect communication of information through coded language is a phenomenon that occurs amongst people regardless of whether they share a language or not.

While meta messaging can be a powerful tool for poets and the like, the consequence of misinterpreted meta messages in every day speech through use of slang, metaphors, socially charged words, and/or over description can consciously and unconsciously confuse, influence, prejudice, and guide how individuals interpret and respond to what is being said.

For example, In America, preferences for music, may serve as a shortcut to judging personality. In describing an individual as
one who listens to rock music, there is a socially derived meta-message inferred that usually evokes different personality assumptions from that of one described as listening to classical music. In this sense, the reference implies a representational meaning that may or may not be the communicator’s intent or accurately depict a person.

In mental health advocacy, there are several examples where Meta messaging reinforces subconscious cultural beliefs and/or attitudes about persons with psychological disorders. For instance, the common use of the word crazy does not necessarily intend to demean persons suffering of mental disorders, yet its casual and indiscriminate use certainly impacts cultural views of mental health whether it means to or not.

As such, part of the challenges of advocating for mental health is re-framing historically pejorative language to interrupt transmittal of negatively charged meta-messages. Mental illness becomes mental disorder or better yet, refers specifically to a disorder. She is depressed becomes she has depression. He is schizophrenic becomes he has schizophrenia.

Some may see little distinction between the examples shown, yet there is. When a person has cancer, do we say she is cancer? When a person has a broken leg do we say, he is broken? No. Yet such correlations are the norm in regarding mental health issues. The assertion here is that calling a person bi-polar, depressed, anorexic, etc. serves as a characterization of a person rather than describing a person’s experience.


Doy, Gen. Picturing the Self : Changing Views of the Subject in Visual Culture. London, GBR: I. B. Tauris & Company, Limited, 2004.

Forrester, Michael A. Psychology of the Image. London, GBR: Routledge, 2000.




One Comment

  1. Very well spoken! One of my pet peeves in the medical field was people referring to someone according to their disability instead of the person. Thanks for speaking out

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