Behavioral Activation and Depression Symptomatology: Longitudinal Assessment of Linguistic Indicators in Text-Based Therapy Sessions

J Med Internet Res. 2021 Jul 14;23(7):e28244. doi: 10.2196/28244.


Background: Behavioral activation (BA) is rooted in the behavioral theory of depression, which states that increased exposure to meaningful, rewarding activities is a critical factor in the treatment of depression. Assessing constructs relevant to BA currently requires the administration of standardized instruments, such as the Behavioral Activation for Depression Scale (BADS), which places a burden on patients and providers, among other potential limitations. Previous work has shown that depressed and nondepressed individuals may use language differently and that automated tools can detect these differences. The increasing use of online, chat-based mental health counseling presents an unparalleled resource for automated longitudinal linguistic analysis of patients with depression, with the potential to illuminate the role of reward exposure in recovery.

Objective: This work investigated how linguistic indicators of planning and participation in enjoyable activities identified in online, text-based counseling sessions relate to depression symptomatology over time.

Methods: Using distributional semantics methods applied to a large corpus of text-based online therapy sessions, we devised a set of novel BA-related categories for the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) software package. We then analyzed the language used by 10,000 patients in online therapy chat logs for indicators of activation and other depression-related markers using LIWC.

Results: Despite their conceptual and operational differences, both previously established LIWC markers of depression and our novel linguistic indicators of activation were strongly associated with depression scores (Patient Health Questionnaire [PHQ]-9) and longitudinal patient trajectories. Emotional tone; pronoun rates; words related to sadness, health, and biology; and BA-related LIWC categories appear to be complementary, explaining more of the variance in the PHQ score together than they do independently.

Conclusions: This study enables further work in automated diagnosis and assessment of depression, the refinement of BA psychotherapeutic strategies, and the development of predictive models for decision support.

Keywords: behavioral activation; depression; digital interventions; mental health; natural language processing; text analysis.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Depression* / diagnosis
  • Depression* / therapy
  • Emotions
  • Humans
  • Language
  • Linguistics*
  • Semantics