Feeling down? Pay attention to your language.
Language changes significantly in both content and word choice in people who are depressed, according to a growing body of research using computer programs to analyze speech and writing. People who are depressed tend to use the pronoun “I” more, indicating a greater focus on self. They also use “absolute” words like “must,” “completely,” “should” or “always,” reflecting an overly black-or-white outlook.
Scientists have long known that people change how they speak when they are depressed—their speech becomes lower, more monotone and more labored, with more stops, starts and pauses. But newer studies, including several published this year, have found differences in the actual words depressed people use.
People who are depressed “don’t see subtleties, and we can see this in the words they use,” says James W. Pennebaker, professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, who studies how language relates to a person’s psychological state.
The study of computer-assisted language analysis for depression is still a nascent field, but apps and other technology that track language could eventually help doctors and patients identify a depressive episode more quickly. Since there are no biological markers for depression as there are for cancer and other diseases, therapists currently have to rely on a patient’s self-reported symptoms and on their own analysis to diagnose the disorder. Both can be highly subjective. The apparent suicides of designer Kate Spade and chef Anthony Bourdain last week underscore just how challenging it can be to identify and treat depression.
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