How to Spot the Language of Depression

By Mohammed Al-Mosaiwi, University of Reading | February 7, 2018 1:00 pm

A drawing of Kurt Cobain. (Credit: Shutterstock)

From the way you move and sleep, to how you interact with people around you, depression changes just about everything. It is even noticeable in the way you speak and express yourself in writing. Sometimes this “language of depression” can have a powerful effect on others. Just consider the impact of the poetry and song lyrics of Sylvia Plath and Kurt Cobain, who both killed themselves after suffering from depression.

Scientists have long tried to pin down the exact relationship between depression and language, and technology is helping us get closer to a full picture. Our new study, published in Clinical Psychological Science, has now unveiled a class of words that can help accurately predict whether someone is suffering from depression.

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 which humans may miss, calculating the percentage prevalence of words and classes of words, lexical diversity, average sentence length, grammatical patterns and many other metrics.

So far, personal essays and diary entries by depressed people have been useful, as has the work of well-known artists such as Cobain and Plath. For the spoken word, snippets of natural language of people with depression have also provided insight. Taken together, the findings from such research reveal clear and consistent differences in language between those with and without symptoms of depression.


Language can be separated into two components: content and style. The content relates to what we express – that is, the meaning or subject matter of statements. It will surprise no one to learn that those with symptoms of depression use an excessive amount of words conveying negative emotions, specifically negative adjectives and adverbs – such as “lonely”, “sad” or “miserable”.

More interesting is the use of pronouns. Those with symptoms of depression use significantly more first person singular pronouns – such as “me”, “myself” and “I” – and significantly fewer second and third person pronouns – such as “they”, “them” or “she”. 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.

Negative words and first person pronouns can give a clue. (Credit: hikrcn/Shutterstock)

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. Does depression cause people to focus on themselves, or do people who focus on themselves get symptoms of depression?


The style of language relates to how we express ourselves, rather than the content we express. Our lab recently conducted a big data text analysis of 64 different online mental health forums, examining over 6,400 members. “Absolutist words” – which convey absolute magnitudes or probabilities, such as “always”, “nothing” or “completely” – were found to be better markers for mental health forums than either pronouns or negative emotion words.

From the outset, we predicted that those with depression will have a more black and white view of the world, and that this would manifest in their style of language. Compared to 19 different control forums (for example, Mumsnet and StudentRoom), the prevalence of absolutist words is approximately 50% greater in anxiety and depression forums, and approximately 80% greater for suicidal ideation forums.

Pronouns produced a similar distributional pattern as absolutist words across the forums, but the effect was smaller. By contrast, negative emotion words were paradoxically less prevalent in suicidal ideation forums than in anxiety and depression forums.

Our research also included recovery forums, where members who feel they have recovered from a depressive episode write positive and encouraging posts about their recovery. Here we found that negative emotion words were used at comparable levels to control forums, while positive emotion words were elevated by approximately 70%. Nevertheless, the prevalence of absolutist words remained significantly greater than that of controls, but slightly lower than in anxiety and depression forums.

Crucially, those who have previously had depressive symptoms are more likely to have them again. Therefore, their greater tendency for absolutist thinking, even when there are currently no symptoms of depression, is a sign that it may play a role in causing depressive episodes. The same effect is seen in use of pronouns, but not for negative emotion words.

Practical Implications for Depression

Understanding the language of depression can help us understand the way those with symptoms of depression think, but it also has practical implications. Researchers are combining automated text analysis with machine learning (computers that can learn from experience without being programmed) to classify a variety of mental health conditions from natural language text samples such as blog posts.

Language analysis can help diagnose depression. (Credit: Dmytro Zinkevych/Shutterstock)

Such classification is already outperforming that made by trained therapists. Importantly, machine learning classification will only improve as more data is provided and more sophisticated algorithms are developed. This goes beyond looking at the broad patterns of absolutism, negativity and pronouns already discussed. Work has begun on using computers to accurately identify increasingly specific subcategories of mental health problems – such as perfectionism, self-esteem problems and social anxiety.

The ConversationThat said, it is of course possible to use a language associated with depression without actually being depressed. Ultimately, it is how you feel over time that determines whether you are suffering. But as the World Health Organisation estimates that more than 300m people worldwide are now living with depression, an increase of more than 18% since 2005, having more tools available to spot the condition is certainly important to improve health and prevent tragic suicides such as those of Plath and Cobain.


This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: emotions
  • Uncle Al

    Those with symptoms of depression use significantly more first person singular pronouns – such as ‘me’ ‘myself’ and ‘I’” The collected speeches of Barack Hussein Obama do not diagnose depression. They diagnose salable malignant self-obsession.

    • Mike Richardson

      And referring to oneself in the third person on a daily basis, such as the current president, does not? 😉

      • Uncle Al

        Return your bonus, demand a higher tax bracket, a lower personal IRS deduction, and increased payroll deductions. Clean out your savings and give it to Dreamers. That’s their dream – and your Democrat Party gets a cut. Does that depress you, that you will always have nothing, by law, and less the harder you work?

        The GOP wants a cut of net retained earnings. Raiding the golden goose’s nest for breakfast (GOP) is not having her for dinner (Social Marxism). If you cannot comprehend the fundamental divergence between rewarded endeavor and impressed potlatch, consider the following day’s meals.

        • Mike Richardson

          LOL! Marxism! We were talking narcissism, and then you start channeling Joseph McCarthy. Maybe you should stick to scientific jargon and avoid embarrassing yourself with the political rhetoric. :)

          • Charles Barnard

            You need to review McCarthy.

          • Mike Richardson

            Reviewed him plenty in my college American history courses. Nice guy who led a witch hunt against political opponents and anyone he disliked, accusing them of “Marxism,” ” Communism, ” and “Anti-Americanism.” Of course, the “-ism” he pushed this country closer to was fascism. Fortunately, he overplayed his hand, and people of good conscience stood up to him. I’m not a big fan of people using that same kind of inflammatory rhetoric in a casual way. Really shows that some fail to learn anything from history.

      • Jenny H

        We are not amused :-(

        • Mike Richardson

          Sorry you aren’t amused, but my reply was to Uncle Al. Did his comment amuse you?

          • Jenny H

            I was being flippant (aka Queens Victoria). Sorry, sorry, I am Australia with a Brit father.

          • Jenny H

            Not to mention I’d never DARE to be amused by Uncle Al (Artificial Intelligence??)

    • Pat Gunn

      Cool story, bro

    • Charles Barnard

      Um. Speeches aren’t ordinary speech, and you cannot analyze them as such. Sorry.

    • Pat Paulson

      Go play with your nitwit friends on Faux, Uncle Al. Btw, kudos to you for some crazy, backhand political retro rant.

  • Jen Brau

    Anyone who has had depression can tell you that depression causes you to focus on yourself, because the emotions felt during depression are overwhelming and take over how you would normally think, feel, and function in society, as a whole. There are some people who may be introverts, or just plain narcissists, that can get depressed, but those are those individuals’ personality characteristics, in general, and not representative of the average population of people of whom are depressed. People that focus on themselves don’t all become depressed. So it would be incorrect to assume that just because someone is depressed, they normally; without depression, are focused on themselves even before the depression develops. Just as it would be wrong to assume that a person focused on themself, will become depressed.

    • Uncle Al

      Suicidal depression is the normal response to living in a toxic society that confiscates your earned wealth, extracts vigorish, then munificently gifts the ever-deserving. The healthy response to an imposed Red Queen’s race is homicidal depression. It’s the only way management learns.

      • Sommertider

        People are more happy where wealth is distributed equal. Raw capitalism fails.

      • Pat Paulson

        No, uncle Al. Gratitude is healthy.

  • Charles Barnard

    I suspect that the statistical increase in depression is more a matter of recognition than of new cases. I also strongly suspect that the number of cases is far higher than estimated.

    What I see as hopeful is that such linguistic markers can be used in real-time to assist people–before they are severely depressed. Since speech analysis can also predict high and low blood sugar and an increasing number of physical maladies, such linguistic apps could make a considerable social difference. (Studies have shown that in couples, arguments generally are preceded by low blood sugar, and knowing that you need a snack could prevent a huge number of arguments. Low blood sugar decreases cognitive function.)

    • Laura Gimby

      Hi Charles, I’ve been appreciating your comments.
      I’m curious about your comment re: linguistic clues to blood sugar drops. I wasn’t able to find a reference in a quick google search. Where might I find that material?

      • Charles Barnard

        Thanks, Laura.
        Unfortunately I don’t remember exactly where I ran across it embedded in information about using speech to predict behavior.

        It’s linked in my head to a study which found that over 90% of arguments between studied couples were accompanied by low glucose on one or both parties.

        Given that a major effect of low glucose levels is stupidity…

        The study has to have been a decade ago, because it was before I became diabetic, and my first thought was a phone app to coach you to have a snack if you were on the verge of an argument.

        Apparently, the field is now called voice biomarkers and is looking at a large number of things. WIth a market growing at 14.5% per year, as noninvasive testing is increasingly favored as it can easily be cheaper, more reliable and safer than traditional tests.

        As yet, I haven’t located the exact source…

        But I’ll keep looking, as I still think an anti-argument app would be a good thing.

        I’m starting with: “voice biomarker” AND glucose

        • Nursing_Ideas

          Excellent idea, an anti-argument app! Anything that could potentially interrupt the internal escalation and insert a moment of perspective… gotta be good.
          I’ll look too, thanks… but mostly I’ll look forward to enthusiastically recommending your app to friends, family and patients.
          Maybe something like the apple watch or a new generation super-fitbit, that measures skin electrical resistance, perspiration, something else to monitor physiological cues would be useful… maybe Alexa could be programmed to use certain words, trigger phrases as “wake-up” cues… lots to think about here!

  • Laura Gimby

    This is fascinating and seems very useful. It raises the question: is it possible that cognitive behavioral treatment aimed simply at expanding one’s ability to think inclusively (so as to decrease absolutism) can make a real and continuing difference against vulnerability to depressive episodes?

    Now that I think about it, this expansion of cognitive repertoire is also central to existential therapy… e.g. thinking in terms of “it’s hard to be human”, rather than “it’s hard to be me”… or embracing the concept of “both/and”, rather than “either/or” (an experience might be both sad and sweet, or one might feel relieved and loving, while also feeling frustrated)

    Great stuff!

  • Jenny H

    “I hate you all!” ( Angry)
    “You are all hateful!” “People are horrible!” “Bloody drivers/people at the shopping mall/school kids/ mothers who let their kids run wild” (Depression)


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