How to Spot Depression by Listening to the Way People Talk

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Statistically speaking, you definitely know and love at least one person who struggles with depression or some other mental illness.

So, it’s important to know how to spot depression – especially because your loved ones could be giving off verbal cues that you are missing.

It turns out that depression changes just about everything, from the way a person interacts with others to the way they speak, move, sleep, and express themselves in writing. This could be one reason that lyrics and prose penned by depressed people, like Sylvia Plath and Kurt Cobain, seem to resonate so strongly with listeners.

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A new study published in Clinical Psychological Science has identified a class of words that can help signal whether or not a person suffers from depression.

They were helped along by new and ever-improving software that allows researchers to process enormous amounts of data in mere minutes. This computer software is enabling researchers to spot language features and trends that human beings might easily have missed.

To put it to work, they analyzed essays, diary entries, and artistic works of people who suffer with depression, taking into consideration both content and style.

Unsurprisingly, when it came to content, people who are depressed tend to use an excessive amount of words that convey negative emotions – particularly negative adjectives and adverbs like “lonely,” “sad,” and “miserable.”

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More interesting is their increased use of first person singular pronouns (“me,” “myself,” and “I”) and decreased us of second and third person pronouns, suggesting that people who battle depression are more focused on themselves than on others.

After learning this, researchers concluded that pronouns are a more reliable way to identify a person with depression than looking for negative adjectives or adverbs. Which does make a kind of sense, given that rumination and social isolation are features common to depression.

To investigate markers for depression in language style, researchers analyzed the text left by over 64,000 members of online mental health forums. The data revealed that, in writing, “absolutist” words, like “always,” “nothing,” or “completely” are better markers than pronouns or negative emotion words.

These “absolutist” words are used 50% more on anxiety and depression forums and 80% more often on suicidal ideation forums.

The words are also used by people who are currently recovered from depression, suggesting that absolutist thoughts could actually contribute to the illness, as well as be a symptom of it.

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Amazingly, artificial intelligences are already outperforming trained therapists in identifying depression, which means that as more sophisticated algorithms are developed, more people that need help could be identified.

Of course, researchers are also warning that people with good mental health use similar language all the time, and the best way to diagnose depression is still based on whether or not you feel as if you are suffering – and that’s something that a therapist is definitely good for (everyone should go to therapy).

Regardless, if it were possible to identify and help a good portion of the 300 million people globally who are living with depression before their illness spirals out of control, then using algorithms could be a game-changer all over the world.

If you’re worried someone you know or love is struggling with depression, look for these markers – and encourage them to seek professional health and treatment.