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Word Use in the Poetry of Suicidal and Nonsuicidal Poets

Wiltsey Stirman, Shannon MA; Pennebaker, James W. PhD

Original Articles

Objective: The purpose of this study was to determine whether distinctive features of language could be discerned in the poems of poets who committed suicide and to test two suicide models by use of a text-analysis program.

Method: Approximately 300 poems from the early, middle, and late periods of nine suicidal poets and nine nonsuicidal poets were compared by use of the computer text analysis program, Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC). Language use within the poems was analyzed within the context of two suicide models.

Results: In line with a model of social integration, writings of suicidal poets contained more words pertaining to the individual self and fewer words pertaining to the collective than did those of nonsuicidal poets. In addition, the direction of effects for words pertaining to communication was consistent with the social integration model of suicide.

Conclusions: The study found support for a model that suggests that suicidal individuals are detached from others and are preoccupied with self. Furthermore, the findings suggest that linguistic predictors of suicide can be discerned through text analysis.

From the University of Pennsylvania (S.W.S.), Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and The University of Texas at Austin (J.W.P.), Austin, Texas.

Address reprint requests to: James W. Pennebaker, PhD, Department of Psychology, The University of Texas, Austin, TX 78712. Email: Pennebaker@psy.utexas.edu

Received for publication August 1, 2000; revision received November 8, 2000.

Copyright © 2001 by American Psychosomatic Society
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