Depression Changes How We Use Language

By Kelly Burch 01/08/19

Researchers studied an online forum for mental health issues to examine how people with symptoms of depression used language.

man with depression

Depression can change both the content and style of the language that people use, according to a study published in the journal of Clinical Psychological Science

The study compared the use of language in online forums dedicated to addressing depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation. It found that absolutist words — like never, always, completely and nothing — were 50% more frequent in forums dealing with depression than in control forums. In groups for people with suicidal ideation, absolutist language was 80% higher than in control groups, according to JSTOR Daily

“Absolutist thinking is considered a cognitive distortion by most cognitive therapies for anxiety and depression,” study authors wrote. 

However, the increased use of absolutist language wasn’t limited to people who are currently clinically depressed. 

“We found elevated levels of absolutist words in depression recovery forums. This suggests that absolutist thinking may be a vulnerability factor,” study authors wrote

The use of absolutist words was more closely connected to depression than the use of negative words like “sad,” “frustrated” or “upset.” However, people in the depression forums did use these negative words more frequently than people in the control forums, according to JSTOR

Another interesting finding, which had been previously identified, is that people with depression were more likely to use first-person singular pronouns and less likely to use third-person pronouns. This could suggest that people with depression are isolated or focused on themselves. Which pronouns someone uses can predict the presence of depression more reliably than negative words, according to one study

“We know that rumination (dwelling on personal problems) and social isolation are common features of depression,” Mohammed Al-Mosaiwi wrote for JSTOR. “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?”

Last year, researchers developed an algorithm that could predict depression by evaluating a person’s speech or texts. 

Tuka Alhanai, first author of the paper outlining the technology, told MIT News that in the future it could be an important diagnostic tool.

“We call it ‘context-free’ because you’re not putting any constraints into the types of questions you’re looking for and the type of responses to those questions,” Alhanai said. “If you want to deploy [depression-detection] models in a scalable way … you want to minimize the amount of constraints you have on the data you’re using. You want to deploy it in any regular conversation and have the model pick up, from the natural interaction, the state of the individual.”

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.