The physical signs of depression can be painfully obvious, but do they show up in your speech and choice of words?
Did you know that suicide is the second highest cause of death among 10 to 24 year-olds in the US in 2016? This shocking statistic alone shows how important it is to recognise the signs of depression.
But when a person deliberately tries to hide their feelings from you, how can you pick up on these vital signs? Depression can affect you physically, and impact on everything you do. Now research suggests that depression also affects how you speak and the words you choose to use.
So, can we pick up on signs of depression simply by listening to what a person says or reading the things they write? Experts think there is a distinct relationship between language and depression.
In fact, there is such a thing as a ‘language of depression’. Using studies and books written by authors diagnosed with depression, it’s possible to spot the signs of depression that show up in our speech.
The Language of Depression
We use language in a specific way:
- Content – what we say.
- Style – how we say it.
American author and poet Sylvia Plath suffered from depression in her early twenties. She committed suicide at the age of thirty. However, her novels and diaries have allowed experts to examine how someone suffering from depression uses language.
Computer software was used to compare Plath’s personal diaries to other autobiographical journals. The results showed that Plath overused first-person pronouns. This is important as it relates to the content of language.
Signs of Depression in Language Content
Content is what we are actually talking about. It relates to the subject matter or the meaning of what we’re saying. Content is what we say. There are clues to signs of depression in the words we choose to describe the content of what we’re expressing.
Studies show that perhaps unsurprisingly, those suffering from depression use more negative adjectives and adverbs. For example, words like ‘sad’, ‘lonely’ and ‘miserable’. It is believed that as depressed people are automatically thinking negative thoughts, these words will naturally show up in their speech.
In addition, what’s more surprising, however, is how depressed people use pronouns. Those with depression used a significantly higher rate of first person singular pronouns.
For instance, when talking or writing they would express themselves as ‘I’, ‘me’, or ‘myself’. They would tend to steer clear from second and third person pronouns such as ‘they’, ‘him’, ‘she’, or ‘them’. This suggests that a depressed person is fixated on themselves. They find it hard to focus on anyone else as the depression is overwhelming them.
“This pattern of pronoun use suggests people with depression are more focused on themselves, and less connected with others. Researchers have reported that pronouns are actually more reliable in identifying depression than negative emotion words.” Lead author – Mohammed Al-Mosaiwi
In Plath’s journals, she significantly overused first-person pronouns such as ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘myself’. This suggests that she was actually more consumed with herself than the subject she was actually writing about.
Likewise, Plath also overused words such as ‘never’, ‘always’, everyone’, ‘all’, ‘nobody’, ‘nothing’ etc. These are known as ‘absolutist words’ and are important when it comes to language style.
Signs of Depression in Language Style
Whereas content is what we say, language style is how we say it. It’s the way we express ourselves to get the meaning or the subject matter across.
One UK study showed that those who were depressed used more absolutist words. These are the ‘all or nothing’ words, words such as ‘definitely’, ‘always’, completely’, ‘nothing’, ‘never’, ‘nobody‘ or ‘everyone’. Researchers used software to track the number of absolutist words posted on an anxiety forum. They found around 1.5 – 1.8 of words used were absolutist. This might not seem like a lot, but in the real world, it represents a 50% increase.
A higher rate of absolutist words shows a close relationship with ‘black and white thinking’. Black and white thinking is where a person is unable to see any middle ground. So, for example, their life will either be amazing or terrible, they love or hate their significant other, they’ll either totally fail their exams or have perfect scores. It’s all or nothing with them, there’s no middle ground, no grey areas.
James W. Pennebaker, professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, studies the connection between language and a person’s psychological well-being. Depressed people “don’t see subtleties, and we can see this in the words they use,” says Pennebaker.
Plath’s world was extremely polarised. She viewed it in stark contrast and wrote about it using these absolutist words. She also used metaphors to describe her darkest feelings.
Signs of Depression and Metaphors
Metaphors allow us to put into words the complex emotions and feelings we can’t easily convey in normal speech. Plath’s skill in creative writing gave her an advantage when it came to accurately describe her mental state.
What is particularly interesting is that Plath used more metaphors when writing about negative mental states. When she was happy or proud or satisfied, she tended to steer clear of metaphors.
This suggests that Plath experienced negative episodes more intensely, more brutally, in a more gut-wrenching way. Plath wasn’t the only one that used metaphors when she was writing about negative experiences. In fact, the famous depressive Winston Churchill described his depression as his ‘Black Dog’.
What to do if you spot the signs of depression in your language?
It’s clear that it is not just our thoughts that affect us, our words have an impact too. Therefore, it’s important to start recognising the kinds of words you’re using.
- Watch your use of negative words. Try instead to accurately recall a situation. For instance, if you’re at a meeting and you think ‘Everyone hates my ideas’, catch yourself and change your words. Instead, think ‘Not everyone likes my ideas, but that’s ok.’
- Stop thinking in absolute terms. Ban words such as: never, nothing, always, totally, must, completely, every, forever, all, etc. Replace them with words that convey middle ground. For example, instead of ‘Things never work out for me’, try ‘This time, things didn’t work out as I would have hoped’.
- Write a diary and then analyse the kind of words you are repeatedly using. Are you using a lot of metaphors to describe your saddest feelings?
Finally, are you using too many first-person pronouns? Our last piece of advice comes from language expert Dr. Pennebaker:
“If most of your sentences have “I” or “me” in them, you are probably too self-focused.