Are you wondering if your employee, co-worker, or friend may be suffering from depression? The words he or she choose may provide a big clue.

Obviously, if you're not a medical professional, you can't diagnose a disease such as depression. But if you know the telltale signs that may indicate someone is depressed, you'll be in a better position to intervene, and urge that person to get an evaluation that might mean they get the help they need. And there may be a big clue in the words that someone chooses.

Computerized text analysis of the writings and chat messages of depressed people--including high-profile depression victims such as Sylvia Plath and Kurt Cobain--has yielded some useful data on the types of words and phrases they use more often than most people. So if you suspect someone you know might be depressed, watch and listen for the following conversational patterns:

1. They use a lot of negative words

 You would expect someone with depression to use words connoting negative emotions, such as "lonely," "sad," "unhappy," and "worried" more often than the average person, and you'd be right. People in the grip of depression use negative words like these with greater frequency than most people.

2. They talk about themselves a lot.

Linguistic analysis revealed that depressed people use personal pronouns--"I," "me," "myself"--more than other people do. That makes a lot of sense, since one hallmark of depression is obsessing about one's own problems and being unable to focus on or connect with other people. Which leads to isolation, which can worsen depression.

If someone you know seems to only be able to talk about his or her own problems and nothing else, it may be natural to think this is a self-centered, uncaring person. But consider the possibility that he or she is suffering from depression and may need help.

3. They talk in absolutes.

Depressed people see things in black and white terms, without gradations or nuances. So if someone often uses words like "always," "never," and "completely," that may be an indication that he or she is depressed. Especially if those absolutes are combined with negative words, as in, "I'll never be able to get the job I want," or "I always screw everything up." In fact, while other linguistic habits tend to go away when the depression lifts, absolute language may remain. Since people who've been depressed are at greater risk of becoming depressed again, it can be a useful warning sign.

If you think someone is depressed...

What should you do if you think someone you know may be struggling with depression? A lot will depend on the nature of your relationship. If the person is your employee, it's important to be respectful of their privacy, so your conversation should focus on their work performance, and also make them aware of any help that may be available through your company, such as an employee assistance program if you have one.

If it's a friend or loved one, you can have a more personal conversation. Let them know that you're there for them, you aren't going away, and you care. Let them know you believe it's possible for things to get better. Don't make the mistake of telling them they "should" be happy or grateful, or that there are others worse off than them. Obviously, don't tell them to snap out of it, or suggest that a good night's sleep or a day at the spa will fix everything. And please don't make the mistake of saying that you "know" how they feel unless you've been diagnosed with clinical depression yourself. You may have gone into a tailspin for a few weeks after a bad breakup or the death of a loved one, but that's not the same as clinical depression, which usually lasts for months or more and often has no obvious cause.

Finally, do take any talk of suicide or wishing things were over very seriously. If you hear these kinds of statements, your friend or co-worker may be at risk, and may need help right away.

Published on: Feb 7, 2018