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What Is High-Functioning Depression?

Imagine going through life 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 exactly feel sad, paranoid or sensitive. If you had to describe how you feel, you might choose the word “numb.”

You may have read the above paragraph without having to imagine what it would be like to live that way. If so, you may have high-functioning depression, whether you realized it before now or not.

Characterizing High-Functioning Depression

General depression can feel different to different people. But a common theme is an inability to enjoy life, or a mental numbness. People living with depression may feel unusually sad and ready to give up 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 getting out of bed but may also struggle to feel refreshed after spending so much time asleep. A depressed person is often lethargic and struggles to focus or concentrate.

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

Friends, family and co-workers of someone with high-functioning depression, might describe them 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.”

People with high-functioning depression seem to live a normal life, so people do not realize that they are suffering inside.

They show up to their commitments and they do their work while putting on an act that everything is OK. They do not open up about their feelings because they do not want to feel vulnerable. People with high-functioning depression learn to pretend that “Everything is fine.”

While being praised for a great job at work, they may feel a constant dread about failing to meet expectations. A college student might feel pressured to graduate from college in four years, even though a five-year plan might be easier for them to handle. People with high-functioning depression are usually capable of hiding their depression around others

The truth is that the person is still struggling with depression and doesn’t know how to seek help. They might not realize that they have depression because they “don’t feel others say they should feel.”

Suicide Risk and High-Functioning Depression

When no one knows about with a person’s high-functioning depression, it is hard to help them seek professional treatment or offer support. Even when the person feels suicidal, the signs are subtle. The disguise that they have maintained for years may begin to crack a bit, but sometimes it is hard to know when a person is living with depression.

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. 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. (used 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 increased. (alcohol can make depression symptoms and thoughts of suicide worse).

If you recognize some of the above characteristics in a friend or loved one, it’s important to understand that depression is treatable. 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


The Dilemma of High-Functioning Depression. Published September 11, 2018. Accessed March 16, 2019.

Posted on October 6, 2016 and modified on April 10, 2019

Krisi Herron

Medically Reviewed by

Krisi Herron, LCDC

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