“High-functioning depression.” The first time I heard a mental health professional say those words to me, I did a double-take. That phrase didn’t add up. At the time, I understood depression as a debilitating mental illness, one that was capable of robbing me of energy, personality and ability to be myself. And while I’d feel that way most of the time, there were periods where I was able to be productive and get things done. Those were the times I didn’t have depression then, right? Not necessarily. Learning about high-functioning depression was an necessary education – one that helped shape the way I view living with mental illness.
The first thing to understand about high-functioning depression is that there isn’t a simple working definition. That’s one of the ways that can make the term sound so misleading, but an easy way to read ‘high-functioning depression’ is that there are people who have depression, live with depression or have depression episodes and can still maintain everyday – and even exceptional – tasks. They are still ‘high-functioning,’ but they still experience symptoms, even bouts of depression just like other people. According to a psychotherapist Mayra Mendez, “the drive to accomplish often sustains action and moves high-functioning individuals towards getting things done.”
Another thing to remember about high-functioning depression is that symptoms are not any different from any other form of depression. Instead, what’s different is how those symptoms affect certain people and how people experience them. This goes back to a cultural attitude about depression, which is connected to the underlying stigma surrounding this term in general. I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve been told, ‘you don’t seem depressed,’ or that it ‘doesn’t look like you should have depression.’ They might mean well, but all I can hear is that I’m not supposed to have depression. And if you’re experiencing symptoms of depression, that thought process isn’t one you want in your head.
Looking back on my experience in the past seven years or so, I thought that I was living my life in two silos: the part of my life that I was able to be productive and do things, and the part of my life where I was depressed. After learning about high-functioning depression, I was able to explore my mental health more and understand how everything connected. I noticed that even at times when I was productive, I would still have negative thoughts. Even if I was out with friends or doing some writing, I’d still deal with thoughts of suicide or feel hopeless. And by ‘pushing through’ despite all those thoughts and emotions, I was making things worse on the back end when I would inevitable have a bout of depression or a manic-like episode. Something needed to change!
Sometimes when we’re experiencing symptoms of depression, we ignore them or push them away. That can be an effective short-term strategy for coping, but if depression symptoms become stronger or more frequent, ignoring your symptoms and experience can make things more difficult. I know people who are considered high-functioning, but they experience strong symptoms on a daily basis. It doesn’t make their experience with depression any ‘better/worse’ than someone else’s – it’s just different.
Are you able to recognize high-functioning depression? Have you struggled with this issue yourself? Let me know in the comments. This is one aspect of depression that’s hard to recognize, which is why my next post will include examples of high-functioning depression and some of the signs. Wishing you all the best this week, friends!