Two of the most important people in my life are diagnosed with depression. Some days they’re happy and a joy to be around—others, they’re miserable and can’t be bothered. While I understand it’s the depression talking, I’m still human, and sometimes can’t help but wonder: Why are they being so cold? Why won’t they answer my phone calls? Aren’t they worried about how I feel? Time and time again, they explain that their illness has a significant impact on most if not all aspects of their life—including how they communicate, which is explored in new research published in Clinical Psychological Science.
This research delves into the implications of depression on language and communication. In sum, this study says that people with depression speak differently than those who don’t have mental health issues: in addition to using an excessive amount of words that convey negative emotions, depressed individuals use more first-person singular pronouns, as well as “absolutist” words. These findings, according to the researchers, could completely change how we understand and diagnose the mental illness.
Mohammed Al-Mosaiwi, one of the study’s authors explains in a study brief how new technology allowed his team to make groundbreaking discoveries: “Traditionally, linguistic analyses in this field have been carried out by researchers reading and taking notes. Nowadays, computerized text analysis methods allow the processing of extremely large data banks in minutes. This can help spot linguistic features humans may miss, calculating the percentage prevalence of words and classes of words, lexical diversity, average sentence length, grammatical patterns and many other metrics.”
Al-Mosaiwi’s research team used this technology to analyze over 6,400 individuals and their interactions on 64 online mental health forums. They found that “absolutist” words—or those that communicate absolute probabilities (e.g., “always,” or “nothing”)—were the most common marker for mental health forums. According to Al-Mosaiwi, absolutist words are about 50% more prevalent in anxiety and depression forums, and 80% greater for suicidal ideation forums.
The team also found further evidence for the notion that people with symptoms of depression use an extensive amount of negative emotion words; these include words like “lonely,” sad,” and “miserable.” Furthermore, they found that those with symptoms of depression also use a significant amount of first-person singular pronouns (e.g., “me,” “myself,” and “I”) as compared with those who don’t have depressive symptoms.
While the latter was the most intriguing finding—one that suggests people with depression are focused primarily on themselves—the researchers want to know more. “We know that rumination (dwelling on personal problems) and social isolation are common features of depression. However, we don’t know whether these findings reflect differences in attention or thinking style,” Al-Mosaiwi explains. “Does depression cause people to focus on themselves, or do people who focus on themselves get symptoms of depression?”
Past research has explored the language of depression, using personal essays, diary entries, even song lyrics written by depressed people. Today, researchers are working to combine automated text analysis with machine learning to analyze a variety of mental health conditions using natural language: such as that found in blog posts. This innovative technology proves to have a significant impact on research (as seen in this study) and it will only improve from here, according to Al-Mosaiwi.
Al-Mosaiwi, M., & Johnstone, T. (2018, January 5). In an Absolute State: Elevated Use of Absolutist Words Is a Marker Specific to Anxiety, Depression, and Suicidal Ideation. Clinical Psychological Science. Retrieved on February 5, 2018 from http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/2167702617747074
Al-Mosaiwi, M. (2018, February 2). People with depression use language differently—here’s how to spot it. The Conversation. Retrieved on February 5, 2018 from https://theconversation.com/people-with-depression-use-language-differently-heres-how-to-spot-it-90877