The way that you interact with your surroundings is one of the bedrocks that defines who you are. But when you suffer from depression, you’re not yourself. Thus, the way that you approach your surroundings changes. Depression affects how we sleep, how we engage others, and even how we communicate. When you suffer from depression it is evident in the way that you speak or express yourself in writing. You might be thinking “well duh, depressed people sound sad”.

No, it’s not just ‘sad’ words.

Depression is not cookie cutter. Depressed does not equal ‘sad’. So how can you tell if someone is depressed by the way they communicate? (hint: it’s not just them telling you they’re depressed — though that is a pretty good sign of depression). Researchers have been delving into this topic, and they are discovering some pretty fascinating things. They’ve been able to use computers to analyze extremely large data banks of written materials. They’ve used personal essays and diaries of people suffering from depression (some even as notable as Kurt Cobain and Sylvia Plath) and analyzed snippets of natural language — and here is what they have discovered:

The Content

Spoken and written communication can be divided into two parts: content, and style. Content has more to do with what we say. It won’t come as a shock, but people with depression are prone to use more words with negative meanings. They use an immense amount of negative adjectives and adverbs (e.g. lonely, or sad, or miserable).

Their use of pronouns reveals even more. They tend to use a significantly larger amount of person singular pronouns (e.g. me, myself, and I). Their disuse of second and third person pronouns (e.g. they, them, she, or he) indicates a level of disconnection from others. It shows that they tend to be more focused on themselves and less on others. Research indicates that pronouns are more reliable in detecting depression than negative emotion words.

Well-known symptoms of depression include an excessive focus on personal problems and social isolation. What is less well known is if people who exhibit these symptoms become depressed, or if people who become depressed begin to exhibit these signs.

The Style

The style in which we communicate has less to do with what we say, and more to do with how we say it. Through an analysis of 64 different mental health forums, with over 6,400 members, researchers found the following: “Absolutist words” (Words like: “always”, “never”, “nothing”, or “completely”) are a better indicator of depression than negative emotion words and pronouns. Researchers predicted that people with depression would have a more ‘black and white’ view of the world and that this worldview would present itself in the way that they use language. Compared to a regular forum, ‘absolutist’ language is approximately 50% more prevalent in depression and anxiety forums, and 80% more likely in suicidal ideation forums. Pronouns were similarly distributed through the forums, though in smaller percentages, and negative emotion words were smaller still.

Even in recovery forums, where people write positive stories about their recovery, the prevalence of ‘absolutist’ language still remained significantly higher than a post on another type of forum.

So what does this mean?

Understanding the way that people with depression use language has huge implications. Researchers have been able to combine this knowledge with a learning machine (computers that can learn from experience without being programmed) to detect a number of mental health issues by reading text samples — like blog posts. This method will only improve as the machine reads more and more material, though it is already outperforming trained therapists attempting the same task.

Depression is on the rise, and it’s one of the most common mental health issues affecting our world today. So while language is not the only indicator of depression, it can be a useful tool in detecting it early. Through language analysis, we can spot depression and offer help — maybe even before the person realizes they need help!


People with depression use language differently – here’s how to spot it

In an Absolute State: Elevated Use of Absolutist Words Is a Marker Specific to Anxiety, Depression, and Suicidal Ideation

People with depression are more likely to say certain words

5 subtle phrases behaviours signal depression

7 subtle signs of depression you should never ignore