Do You Speak Depression?

This is not going to surprise you: up to 10% of people in the UK experience depression at least once in their lifetime. Another well-known statistical find is that one fifth of days lost from work are caused by anxiety or depression. One fifth!

Laboriously unshackling themselves from obscurity and stigma, the challenges of mental health have by now permeated public consciousness to a point where we are all more or less aware of their prevalence. Posts on social media, articles, podcasts keep inviting us to talk, share, open up, reach out if we are struggling – and to keep an eye on our friends who might be.

What gets in the way, though, is how good we are at just carrying on. As humans, we are notoriously good at avoiding facing problems. We are tremendously skilled at dodging difficult conversations and pretending nothing’s wrong. Can you ever really know if your mate who seems to have lost weight is just eating less rubbish, as they say? Can you ever really know that your colleague who’s keeping to herself lately is just busy and tired? After all, you can’t very well read people’s minds.

Or can you?

In a fascinating recent application of sociolinguistic research, scientists have homed in on what has been defined the “language of depression” – words and phrases that people tend to use when they are suffering. It seems that not just the content of our speech, but our stylistic choices too, can reliably point to the state of our mental health.

Unsurprisingly, ‘negative’ nouns and adjectives will be prevalent in your language patterns if you are depressed: nouns such as ‘loneliness’ and ‘sadness’, or adjectives like ‘stressed’ and ‘upset’, or adverbs like ‘down’.

What is even more revealing, though, is choice of pronouns: if you are affected by depression, you will be more likely to use first person singular pronouns (I, me, myself, mine) rather than second and third person ones (such as he, she, they, him, them, etc.). This clearly points to one of the well-known causes of depression: rumination, or the obsessive, relentless focussing on one’s own problems.

Another clue is the use of absolute words, such as ‘always’, ‘never’, ‘everything’, or ‘nobody’. The use of absolutes such as these reveals the distorted and exaggerated all-or-nothing thinking that accompanies depression.

So make it a habit to prick up your ears… if you start saying these words a lot, or have noticed a change in the way someone close to you talks, it might be time to reach out for help.

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