Like every language, the language of depression has its identifying characteristics. The use of pronouns and verbs are significant in that they reflect some of the mechanisms of depression. 

Language can be a cage, but it can also be scaffolding to help us change.

Language reflects experience

All languages have pronouns, which are general words to describe the self and others. There are three groups of pronouns; first person pronouns- are “I” and “me”; second person pronouns are “you”; and third person pronouns are "they”. There is some evidence that people with depression will use the first person pronoun often - it can be hard for them to see a world outside of their own subjective experience. Similarly, they may turn in on themselves as interacting with others seems too painful, and this is reflected in their language.

A depressed person's relationship to the verbs they use is striking, and this is shown through their choice of "mood". A verb is a word that denotes actions, and people can have different relationships to the things they are describing called moods. A mood in language is, as might be expected, about the relationship that the speaker has to the idea conveyed by the verb. There are three moods: the indicative, the imperative, and the subjunctive.  

People experiencing depression gravitate towards expressing self-critical thoughts in the indicative tense: "I'm definitely going to be a failure in my new job". The indicative tense presents something as being a matter of fact, describing certainty.  

In this way, the language of people with depression often appears to be stuck in the indicative mood. If someone with depression has self-critical thoughts, then these are expressed as statements of fact rather than subjective opinions. If they have worries about the future, then the anticipated problem “will definitely happen” rather than “could potentially” happen.

The language of possibility 

These thoughts can be challenged by thinking more in the subjunctive, which is denoted bywords such as could, possibly, and might. Thinking more in the subjunctive allows us to think in terms of possibilities, giving us a tool for imagining a different story to our pain. In Alan Bennett’s play “the History Boys”, Dakin says, “It's subjunctive history. You know the subjunctive? The mood used when something may or may not have happened. When it is imagined.”

The subjunctive allows us to think about our pasts differently. In the film "Good Will Hunting", Matt Damon as Will blames himself for his problems. His psychologist, Sean, played by Robin Williams, offers him a “subjunctive history”: one where there is another possible and more helpful interpretation of his life.

Changing imperatives from destructive to constructive 

The imperatives used in depression can often be destructive in nature, instructing or commanding us to belittle or punish ourselves. For example, someone may tell themselves "do not seek help". Looking at the imperative opens up the possibility for positive instruction; "do not seek help" can change into something else, a mantra-like message to tell oneself such as "keep on going". This principle is seen in the Cognitive Behavioural Analysis System of Therapy (CBASP) - it's called a “call to arms”. These are easily memorable short instructions to give ourselves which can be put into action.  

Language can be a cage, but it can also be scaffolding to help us change. That is to say, an awareness that faulty cognitions work their way into language empowers one to actively change how they speak. Whilst changing one's language isn't an instantaneous cure for depression, a change in perspective can pave the path to recovery. Language teaches us that there are multiple points of views. Changes in the use of pronouns, more emphasis on the subjunctive, and more imperatives which are geared towards helpfulness can be the small markers which indicate that someone is recovering from depression.

Click here to buy Michael's book 'A Practical Guide to Working with Depression: A cognitive behavioural approach for mental health workers'.