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Want to know if you’re exhibiting signs of depression? Check your texts


How language can signal depression Pin It
Photo: Stocksy/Visualspectrum

Depression is a far-reaching condition that can be hard to pinpoint: Like, are you feeling depressed, just anxious, or both? And how do you know if you’re just going through a rough patch or if your mood is symptomatic of something bigger? Although mental health is not an exact science, new studies are providing evidence that technology can help identify and address the condition in a more nuanced way.

Google can help you take those first steps in learning about mental health conditions, your Instagram filters could be a subconscious reflection of your psychological state, and now a new study claims the language you use to write (or text) could be crucial to diagnosing depression.

The study, published in Clinical Psychological Science, sifted through scores of forums and online message boards dedicated to mental health (mainly depression and anxiety). Ultimately, the authors were able to identify linguistic markers specific to those who may be suffering from depression.

The study suggested that people who use mental health forums are more likely to use “absolutist words,” which relay a black-and-white understanding of the world (“always,” “nothing,” and “completely,” are all examples). 

Study co-author Mohammed Al-Mosaiwi, explained in a first-person piece on The Conversation that language is comprised of two components—content (what you’re expressing) and style (how you’re expressing it)—and analyzing these two markers can shed light on mental health conditions. Past studies, for example, have noted that people who suffer from depression are more apt to use first-person, singular pronouns at an increased rate, suggesting a focus on the self and a disconnection to others. 

The new study added to this understanding of how language and depression interact with its finding that people who use mental health forums are more likely to use “absolutist words,” which relay a black-and-white understanding of the world (“always,” “nothing,” and “completely,” are all examples). The researchers analyzed 63 forums (totaling to 6,400 members) using Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count software, and found that anxiety-, depression-, and suicide-related forums contained a statistically significant amount more absolutist words than the control forums did.

Al-Mosaiwi noted that while in previous studies, language was proven to be a useful measure for mental health, looking for signs of depression in a depression-specific forum seems a bit like shooting fish in a barrel, and he conceded that language isn’t a catchall. “It is, of course, possible to use a language associated with depression without actually being depressed,” he wrote.

Regardless, being aware of possible symptoms of depression can help you empathize with and understand those around you who are dealing with the the condition.

Although sleep deprivation might be linked to mental-health disorders, you should still think twice about taking that depression nap.