Identifying Depression through Language

In an Absolute State: Elevated Use of Absolutist Words Is a Marker Specific to Anxiety, Depression, and Suicidal Ideation

Mohammed Al-Mosaiwi & Tom Johnstone

Abstract

Absolutist thinking is considered a cognitive distortion by most cognitive therapies for anxiety and depression. Yet, there is little empirical evidence of its prevalence or specificity. Across three studies, we conducted a text analysis of 63 Internet forums (over 6,400 members) using the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count software to examine absolutism at the linguistic level. We predicted and found that anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation forums contained more absolutist words than control forums (ds > 3.14). Suicidal ideation forums also contained more absolutist words than anxiety and depression forums (ds > 1.71). We show that these differences are more reflective of absolutist thinking than psychological distress. It is interesting that absolutist words tracked the severity of affective disorder forums more faithfully than negative emotion words. Finally, we found elevated levels of absolutist words in depression recovery forums. This suggests that absolutist thinking may be a vulnerability factor.

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Dr Zsofia Demjen

Zsofia Demjen

Affiliation: University College London

Zsófia Demjén is Senior Lecturer in Applied Linguistics at the UCL Centre for Applied Linguistics, University College London. Her research interests include health communication, metaphor, and the intersections of language, mind and health(care). She is author of Sylvia Plath and the Language of Affective States: Written Discourse and the Experience of Depression (2015, Bloomsbury), co-editor of The Routledge Handbook of Metaphor and Language (2017) and her work has appeared in the Journal of Pragmatics, Applied Linguistics, Communication & Medicine, Medical Humanities, and Discourse Studies among others.

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