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What Is High-Functioning Depression?

Imagine going through the motions of life in a robotic way, without experiencing much joy, satisfaction or peace. Each day brings you closer to the next day, but you don’t have long-term goals that give you a sense of purpose. You don’t necessarily feel catatonic, sorrowful, paranoid or weepy. If you had to describe how you feel, you might choose the word “numb.”

Maybe you read the above paragraph and didn’t have to imagine what it would be like to live that way, because you already know what it’s like firsthand. If so, you probably have what is known as high-functioning depression, whether you realized it before now or not.

Characterizing High-Functioning Depression

Depression — the kind without any other adjectives surrounding it — can certainly feel different to different people. But a common theme is an inability to enjoy life, or a mental numbness. Rather than feeling a normal range of emotions, depressed people are more likely to feel unusually sad and ready to throw in the towel on their relationships, careers and maybe even on life itself.

Many, but not all, depressed people also experience changes in their sleep patterns. They might sleep for an extraordinarily long time and find it difficult to wake up. They not only may have a hard time simply getting out of bed, but may also struggle to feel refreshed despite having spent so much time asleep. A depressed person is often lethargic, struggles to focus or concentrate and feels like their brain is in a fog.

But depression doesn’t affect everyone this way. To some, getting up with the alarm isn’t a problem; they can do it without mental or physical struggle. But are they happy to be getting up for another day? No. Are they energized by the thought of a work project? Not particularly. But will they be able to get their work done? Yes, actually. Are they excited about weekend plans? Well, if the plans ended up being cancelled, they wouldn’t feel a strong emotion one way or another. You get the drift. These folks are considered to have “high-functioning depression.”

Living Life Like a Game of Charades

If you were to interview the friends, family and co-workers of someone with high-functioning depression, they might actually describe such a person very differently:

“She always gets her work done.”
“She has a good attitude about her work.”
“She is very willing to help out.”
“She was always at the top of her class.”
“I’m sure she’ll get another promotion by the end of the year.”

Because people with high-functioning depression do not experiences disruptions in life from mental illness, the people who surround them tend not to realize that they are suffering inside.

They show up to their commitments and they do their work, all the while putting on an act that everything is OK. Opening up about their feelings would leave them vulnerable, or so they think. This means that someone with high-functioning depression has learned to maintain a certain exterior that says, “Everything is fine.”

Of course, the truth is that such an individual is still struggling with depression and probably doesn’t know how to seek help from their support network. In fact, the depressed person might not even realize that they have depression, because they “don’t feel like the depression commercials say they should feel.”

While simultaneously being praised for leading a challenging work project, they feel a constant dread about failing to meet expectations.

Or a college student might feel pressured to graduate from college in four years, even though a five-year plan might be infinitely easier for them to handle.

Regardless of the specific circumstances, people with high-functioning depression are capable of masking their depression symptoms when around others, to the point where everyone is usually surprised to learn about their constant struggles.

Suicide Risk and High-Functioning Depression

When no one knows about the hidden struggles of someone with high-functioning depression, it is virtually impossible to help them seek professional treatment, or to even offer a friendly ear to listen. When someone with high-functioning depression feels suicidal, the signs are subtle. The façade that they have maintained for years may begin to crack a bit, but ask yourself this: if you knew someone for a long time and, to the best of your knowledge, their first encounter with depression was just last week when they arrived at work a little late every day, would you assume they were ready to take their own life?

Most of us would completely miss the sign.

A person with high-functioning depression is like an iceberg. We only see the tip, but there is much more going on under the surface. And unfortunately, the iceberg analogy doesn’t even really work, because we don’t recognize the tip of the iceberg at all. At most, maybe we see an ice cube. People with high-functioning depression are just that good at hiding it.

So how can you know whether someone you care about might need more help than they’re letting on? Be on the lookout for these characteristics:

  1. Someone who is their own worst critic.
  2. Sudden changes in work quality, performance or attitude (i.e., even more quiet than usual in meetings or around the water cooler).
  3. Someone who seems overly concerned about productivity or wasting time (productivity can be used as a means to escape numb feelings, and a persistence feeling of “wasting time” can evolve into the mindset that life is just a waste of time and not worth living).
  4. Alcohol consumption, especially if it has noticeably increased (alcohol can make depression symptoms and thoughts of suicide infinitely worse).

If you identify yourself in the descriptions throughout this article or recognize some of the above characteristics in a friend or loved one, it’s important to understand that depression is treatable and that getting joy out of life again is certainly possible. Talk to someone you trust or to a doctor to find out what treatment plans may be best for you.

By Cathy Habas

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