In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Language in Mental Health Disorders

  • Introduction

Linguistics Language in Mental Health Disorders
Dennis Tay
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 July 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0246


Mental health disorders are conditions that disturb thought, mood, behaviors, or combinations of all three. Familiar examples include depression, bipolar disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, and schizophrenia. Although symptoms range from mild to severe, they generally affect an individual’s ability to function in daily life and are more common in the 2010s than popularly assumed, according to reporting by the World Health Organization. Language in mental health disorders has been researched in two broad strands. First, many of them are treated by the verbal activity of psychological counseling (or psychotherapy), sometimes called the “talking cure.” Therapists apply clinical methods and interact with clients over multiple sessions to understand and modify their behaviors, cognitions, and emotions. On the one hand, this type of interaction provides rich data for linguists working in sociolinguistics, conversation analysis, (critical) discourse analysis, and pragmatics to investigate the linguistic nature of a socially important activity. On the other hand, a growing number of mental health professionals acknowledge the relevance of linguistic research and offer similar analyses from more clinically oriented perspectives. Both groups of researchers employ diverse methodologies, including discourse analysis, corpus, survey, and (quasi)-experimental techniques on different levels of linguistic phenomena, from words to rhetorical devices such as metaphor. While research into the language of psychotherapy generally assumes that clients have intact language and communication skills that support the treatment process, the second research strand examines the relationships between specific mental health diagnoses and language-related symptoms. Trauma patients, for instance, suffer a loss of ability to produce coherent narratives of their traumatic experiences. Whether language is seen as a treatment resource or target of affliction, one can identify fairly distinct descriptive or prescriptive/interventionist foci in the literature. Descriptively oriented studies are more common in linguistics research and have the fundamental aim of documenting characteristics of language in the underexplored context of mental health. The general assumption of such studies is that all social contexts of language use are of inherent interest. Therefore, research is not primarily aimed at improving how the activities underlying these contexts are conducted; that is, better treatment outcomes. In contrast, prescriptive or interventionist studies are more common in psychological and mental health research. The emphasis is not on understanding linguistic properties, but on the relationship between language variables and treatment processes or outcomes. A survey of both literatures, however, reveals an encouraging movement toward some meeting point in between, and closer collaborative work among linguists and mental health professionals. The growing number of synergistic research resources and publication outlets also reflects this.

General Resources

Three types of resources are particularly helpful for interested researchers with a linguistics rather than mental health background. The first is accessible reference texts providing foundational knowledge of mental health disorders and the many psychotherapy paradigms available for their treatment. The second is publicly available materials that offer a plausible source of data, mostly real-life instances of text and talk in mental health settings, for researchers who may not have access otherwise. The third is represented by a growing number of journals that recognize and promote the relevance of linguistic analysis for mental health theory and practice.

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