Simple Secrets to Communicate with People Suffering from Severe Depression

Have you ever put a smiley face at the end of a handwritten note or letter? Not in an email or a text message with a semi-colon & close parentheses, but a hand-drawn circle with a smile and two eyes? If you answered yes, it might surprise you to know that over 90% of convicted felons in jail end their letters with a smiley face. Even in O.J. Simpson’s suicide note in 1994, while America watched the police chase his white Ford Bronco down Interstate 405 in California, his letter had a smiley face.

Recently, I was speaking with one of my instructors at the Body Language Institute (BLI), Frank Marsh. Frank is a Marine who is now a lead instructor at BLI and is a federal law enforcement officer at the National Drug Intelligence Center. Frank shared with me that research shows, more often than not, when people draw a smiley face on a hand-written note, they are depressed.

Now think back to the last time you drew a hand-written smiley face. Were you down in the dumps? Heartbroken? Low on cash?

The statistic itself is depressing: Each year, 17 million American adults experience a period of clinical depression. According to Psychology Information Online, this means that 17 million American adults have a whole slew of other complications that come along with depression, one of which is an inability to process emotions like the rest of adults. This flawed emotional processing only leads to even deeper depression.

According to some experts, the way to communicate with our loved ones and friends with these critical emotional processing problems is to use facial expressions, hand gestures, and other non-verbal cues to express our thoughts, opinions and requests. Sorry, experts, but I disagree. According to recent research, the key to our depressed loved ones and friends to understanding us is using clear and concise words – at least when it comes to expressing our disappointment and disgust. And I’m a body language expert – you know I mean business when I’m talking about the power of words!

Two researchers at the University of Otago in New Zealand wanted to evaluate how severely depressed individuals perceive emotions compared to those who are healthy. Richard Porter and Katie Douglas conducted a study in which 68 people who had been diagnosed with severe depression were shown 96 pictures of faces that displayed five basic emotions: anger, happiness, sadness, disgust, and fear. They were told to identify the emotion. Their results were compared with those of a control group of non-depressed individuals.

Porter and Douglas found one distinguishing point in particular between the 2 groups: the control group did significantly better at recognizing the emotion disgust. The 2 researchers were the first to report this finding, although they noted that similar inabilities to detect disgust have been seen among those with Parkinson’s disease.

This inability to identify disgust is an example of faulty emotional processing, which means that an individual processes stressful events incorrectly. Faulty emotional processing has been linked to anxiety disorders, PTSD, and depression. Many doctors and psychologists believe that a huge factor in helping depressed patients is to correct their emotional processing. Patients are medicated to balance out their dopamine levels, and then placed near disgusted people so they can practice reading the emotion. 

Bottom line: Unless you are a doctor, simply choose your words carefully and clearly when you’re disgusted with someone suffering from depression. Enough said?

Added to Mental Health, Body Language on Tue 08/17/2010