Forum Posts Helped Researchers Link Our Words to Depression

Photo by Eric Didier on Unsplash

The words we choose matter to our wellbeing. That’s a central tenant of cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps us reconsider statements that reflect cognitive distortions. When we say, “I’m going to fail my test,” we’re engaging in fortune telling. That fortune telling hurts our chances to succeed in turn. When we insist that ‘I never do anything right,” we’re overgeneralizing, using absolutist language to make a statement that isn’t true (after all, we all do things right occasionally).

But for all we know about cognitive distortions and their potential harm, we know less about how intimately some of the words themselves are connected to mental health issues. That’s why researchers from University of Reading set out to discover if there is a link — and if so, how significant it might be.

To learn the truth, they analyzed posts from over 6,400 forum users. Their goal was to examine absolutism at a linguistic level, to see how often different sorts of people used words like “never,” “always,” and “completely” in different situations. Previous research has shown that absolutist thinking has close links to suicidal ideation, borderline personality disorder, and eating disorders, but identifying absolutist thinking empirically hasn’t historically been a simple task. Automated text analysis offers a novel approach.

The test groups were users from anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation forums. To control for different types of distress, the control groups included general, asthma, diabetes and cancer forums. Researchers also controlled for age and binary gender.

As it turns out, absolutist words were used notably more in anxiety and depression forums — a 50 percent greater prevalence than the control forums. They were even more prevalent on suicidal ideation forums, with an 80 percent higher prevalence.

In an article about their study, the researchers also point out other linguistic characteristics of people with 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.

Surprisingly, they found that pronouns were less closely tied to the types of forums than absolutist words. Negative emotion words were even harder to use as an indicator, as they were less common in the suicidal ideation forums than the anxiety and depression forums. First-person pronouns and absolutist language were both elevated in depression recovery groups too, which may indicate a way to predict recurring depressive symptoms.

The researchers hope that their findings will help contribute to machine learning models that could someday help direct people who might be struggling to the help they need. They also remind us that depression has a language of its own — and that, as cognitive behavioral therapists insist, our words, thoughts, and feelings are more closely linked than we may think.

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