Despite the potentially devastating effects it can have on a person, it is not always easy to spot when someone has depression. However, following a recent study, scientists believe that they’ve found another telltale sign of the mental illness. According to them, people with depression use language differently, and they’ve relayed how you can notice it.
A mental illness can leave an indelible impact on a person, influencing their everyday actions and communication skills. As a result, it can also be detectable in their writing and the ways in which they express their feelings. So this “language of depression” really does have a way of leaving an impression, especially through mediums such as music and poetry.
Kurt Cobain and Sylvia Plath are two of the most notable examples of that, connecting with a receptive audience through their song lyrics and poems respectively. Although they committed suicide following individual battles with depression, their words continue to live on.
With that in mind, scientists have studied the relationship between language and depression for some time. However, thanks to advances in technology, a seemingly significant step was made in understanding that connection in January, 2018, through an in-depth study. Written by Mohammed Al-Mosaiwi and Tom Johnstone of the University of Reading, England, their work was published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science.
The study claims that a certain class of words can indicate if someone has depression. “Traditionally, linguistic analyses in this field have been carried out by researchers reading and taking notes,” Al-Mosaiwi wrote on the academic news website The Conversation in February 2018. “Nowadays, computerised text analysis methods allow the processing of extremely large data banks in minutes.”
With this technology in place, the authors were able to analyze metrics such as grammatical patterns, diversity of vocabulary and average sentence length. “So far, personal essays and diary entries by depressed people have been useful, as has the work of well-known artists such as [Kurt] Cobain and [Sylvia] Plath,” Al-Mosaiwi continued.
“For the spoken word, snippets of natural language of people with depression have also provided insight,” Al-Mosaiwi added. “Taken together, the findings from such research reveal clear and consistent differences in language between those with and without symptoms of depression.”
Unsurprisingly, the study found that those showcasing signs of depression would use words that imparted negative emotions, like “sad,” “miserable” and “lonely.” However, the authors focused their attention on an even more intriguing connection between the illness and use of pronouns. Indeed, they discovered that those with symptoms of the condition would use more first person pronouns in their vocabulary.
So, words such as “I,” “me” and “myself” proved more prominent than second and third person pronouns like “you,” “she” and “themselves.” With these results in mind, the study suggested that people suffering with depression are less connected with those around them, lending more of their attention to themselves. However, off the back of that, Al-Mosaiwi made an interesting observation.
“We know that rumination (dwelling on personal problems) and social isolation are common features of depression,” Al-Mosaiwi wrote on The Conversation. “However, we don’t know whether these findings reflect differences in attention or thinking style. Does depression cause people to focus on themselves, or do people who focus on themselves get symptoms of depression?”
From there, the study looked at the language we use to express ourselves, utilizing data collected from over 60 mental health forums across the internet. With over 6,000 users to examine, the authors discovered an abundance of “absolutist words” such as “completely,” “always” and “nothing.” However, that wasn’t a surprise to them.
“From the outset, we predicted that those with depression will have a more black-and-white view of the world, and that this would manifest in their style of language,” Al-Mosaiwi wrote on The Conversation. “Compared to 19 different control forums, the prevalence of absolutist words is approximately 50 percent greater in anxiety and depression forums, and approximately 80 percent greater for suicidal ideation forums.”
Furthermore, the data produced another intriguing piece of information. While first person pronouns proved just as prevalent as absolutist words in the forums, negative emotion words were more frequent in anxiety and depression forums than the suicidal ideation forums. The research didn’t end there, though.
Recovery forums were also included in the study, where users who have been through depression post positive comments for others. However, despite a 70 percent increase in positive emotion words compared to the rest, those forums still contained a significant number of absolutist words. With that in mind, Al-Mosaiwi made another observation.
“Crucially, those who have previously had depressive symptoms are more likely to have them again,” Al-Mosaiwi wrote on The Conversation. “Therefore, their greater tendency for absolutist thinking, even when there are currently no symptoms of depression, is a sign that it may play a role in causing depressive episodes.”
The author believes that there are a number of practical implications from understanding the language of depression. For instance, in an attempt to classify a number of mental health disorders from text samples, researchers are combining text analysis with machine learning.
Incredibly, that process has already surpassed specialist therapists in classifying the respective disorders. “Work has begun on using computers to accurately identify increasingly specific subcategories of mental health problems – such as perfectionism, self-esteem problems and social anxiety,” Al-Mosaiwi added.
However, there appears to be an obvious drawback to the authors’ compelling study. Not everyone who uses the “language of depression” is necessarily depressed, despite the intriguing data collected from across the internet. As Al-Mosaiwi concluded, “It is how you feel over time that determines whether you are suffering.”
Unfortunately, though, numbers estimated by the World Health Organization suggest that a lot of individuals are suffering with the condition. It believes that over 300 million people across the globe have depression, 18 percent more than the figure posited back in 2005.
Despite the potential drawbacks, though, this study could serve as a very helpful tool for identifying those showcasing signs of depression. By gaining an insight into their mindset through their use of language, those people could receive the help they might not have gotten otherwise.