A Conceptual Metaphor for Service-Seeking and Service-Using – Part I

Recently I participated in a discussion of how to improve access to mental health services for children and youth and their families.

One notion was to designate an agent to assist anyone who is wanting to access mental health services for themselves or someone they are caring for. In our discussion the agent was sometimes called a “navigator” – sometimes a “coach” – and sometimes a “connector” or “bridge” – which reminded me of some earlier reading and thinking I’d done on the use of metaphor(s) in this sort of planning exercise.

Without discounting the alternatives altogether, I want to make the case that the metaphor HELPER IS A NAVIGATOR is more apt and meaningful – not only as a framework for describing the job of the agent in evocative terms, but as a vehicle for understanding and even designing how an agent might assist people who are seeking to access mental health services.

My own view of how metaphor works is drawn heavily from the writings of George Lakoff, Mark Johnson and Zoltan Kovecses (see Further Readings below). In outline:

Conceptual Metaphor

Metaphor may be defined as understanding one conceptual domain in terms of another conceptual domain:


Metaphorical linguistic expressions (ways of talking) make explicit , or are manifestations of, the conceptual metaphors (ways of thinking).

The conceptual domain from which we draw metaphorical linguistic expressions to understand another conceptual domain is called the source domain, while the conceptual domain that is understood in this way is the target domain.

A conceptual metaphor typically employs a more abstract concept as the target domain and a more concrete or physical concept as the source domain.

Our experiences with our own bodies and the physical world around us serve as a natural foundation for the comprehension of more abstract domains.

Conceptual Metaphor as a Set of Mappings

When we say CONCEPTUAL DOMAIN A “is understood in terms of” CONCEPTUAL DOMAIN B, we mean there is a set of systematic correspondences or mappings between the constituent elements of the source domain and the constituent elements of the target domain.

To know a metaphor is to understand the systematic mappings between a source and a target and to use linguistic expressions to reflect these mappings.

Metaphorical Mappings onto A JOURNEY

The writings of George Lakoff and his colleagues include extensive discussions of of two related metaphors – LIFE IS A JOURNEY and LOVE IS A JOURNEY. There is also a smaller body of discussion related to THERAPY IS A JOURNEY. This work gives us a good start on exploring the metaphor HELPER IS A NAVIGATOR.

Coming Up



Part IV: The Metaphor of Mental Health and Mental Illness

Part V: Navigating Mental Health Services

Suggested Readings

  • Neil Aronov and Stanley Brodsky,  The River Model: A metaphor and tool for training new psychotherapists (2009).George Lakoff, Women, fire and dangerous things: what categories reveal about the mind (1987).
  • George Lakoff, The contemporary theory of metaphor (1993).
  • George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors we live by, 2nd edition (2003).
  • Tammie Ronen and Michael Rosenbaum, Beyond direct verbal instruction in Cognitive Behavioral Supervision (1998).
  • Dennis Tay, THERAPY IS A JOURNEY as a discourse metaphor (2011).
  • Zoltán Kövecses, Metaphor: A practical introduction (1987).
  • —–, A cognitive linguistic view of metaphor and therapeutic discourse (2001).
  • —–, Metaphor and emotion: Language, culture, and body in human feeling (2003).