What is High-Functioning Depression?

Approximately 9.5% of American adults suffer a depressive illness each year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention further estimate that about 18.5% of US adults experience depressive disorders. While these statistics underline the prevalence of depression in the country, they probably do not tell the whole story. Researchers are raising concerns over high-functioning depression, where a person can appear outwardly normal but still battle depression internally. 

What is high-functioning depression?

High-functioning depression is a non-medical term used to describe patients who meet the criteria for a clinical diagnosis of depression. However, they manage to function normally most of the time. These people display normal behaviors that make it hard for others or even themselves to know they have a mental condition. 

High-functioning depression is not generally a recognized condition. However,  in some cases, it can represent an actual clinical diagnosis referred to as persistent depressive disorder or dysthymia. “High-functioning depression” is not a clinical diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). 

Causes of high-functioning depression

A combination of the following factors may cause high-functioning depression:

  • Brain chemistry imbalances: Imbalances of specific brain chemicals or neurotransmitters that regulate mood can trigger the condition.
  • Trauma: Experiencing trauma can contribute to developing mental health conditions, including depression and post-traumatic stress disorders.
  • Life events: Experiencing stressful or upsetting life events like breakups, job loss, or the death of a loved one can lead to depression.
  • Genetics: Depression is often caused by genetic issues that run in families. Having a relative with high-functioning depression increases the likelihood of developing the condition.
  • Medical conditions: Health conditions like diabetes, cancer, chronic pain, and heart disease can increase your risk of developing depression substantially
  • Personality: Some personality traits may put you at higher risk for depression.

Symptoms of high-functioning depression

Many symptoms of high-functioning depression are similar to those of significant depression though they are generally less severe. 

Some of the symptoms of this condition include:

  • Having persistent feelings of emptiness or sadness
  • Feeling irritable or anxious
  • Withdrawing from those around you
  • Feeling guilty or worthless
  • Decreased appetite or overeating
  • Lack of energy and fatigue
  • Thinking about death, self-harm, or suicide
  • Experiencing physical symptoms like aches, pains, digestive issues, cramps, and headaches with no apparent cause.
  • Insomnia or oversleeping 
  • Feeling sad and hopeless
  • Difficulty concentrating and making decisions

Diagnosis of high-functioning depression

High-functioning depression is a recognized mental health condition licensed mental health professionals or psychiatrists diagnose. To be diagnosed with the disorder, a person must experience a depressed mood most days for at least two years.

Other criteria that must be met to make a diagnosis include the following:

  • The patient should not have experienced any instances of hypomania or mania. This is usually a euphoric and energetic mood
  • The depression symptoms should not be associated with another mental illness, a medical condition, or substance use
  • The signs and depressed mood should cause impairment in at least one area of normal functioning
  • A person diagnosed with the disorder should also meet the criteria for major depression

Treating high-functioning depression

Although people with high-functioning depression don’t generally display severe symptoms, it doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t need treatments. 

Treatments for this type of condition may include:

Therapy: Therapy can help patients resolve symptoms of depression to lead an everyday life. Standard therapy techniques used to manage this condition include Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and mindfulness techniques. Therapy can help a person work on their shame or fear of having depression. People can also use therapy to gain confidence to deal with the condition.

Medication: In addition to therapy, antidepressant medication may be prescribed for this type of condition. These medications help improve the balance of neurotransmitters in the brain. The doctor may recommend a range of antidepressants on a trial basis.

Support groups: Support groups are integral in helping patients deal with this condition. Being a support group member helps a person gain access to a safe space to discuss their depression with people with similar experiences.

Coping with high-functioning depression

When someone is diagnosed with depression, finding ways to manage the condition is crucial. Making lifestyle changes can boost your mood and help alleviate many of your symptoms. 

The following are some of the tips for coping with high-functioning depression:

  • Express yourself in writing: Keeping a journal can be an effective way to manage symptoms of depression. Writing a journal helps people become open about their concerns, feelings, and thoughts. This can be a great way to release pent-up emotions and relieve stress.
  • Boost self-image: People with depression often experience episodes of self-esteem. Finding ways to feel better about oneself is integral to your treatment. Some lifestyle changes that could improve self-esteem include regular exercise, healthy dieting, and spending time with close friends and confidants.
  • Stick to a schedule: Maintaining a healthy and regular routine can help people with depression manage their symptoms. Staying involved helps fight feelings of unproductivity and low self-esteem. 

Should the phrase high-functioning depression be used?

Experts have differing opinions regarding whether the term high functioning depression is appropriate to describe this condition. Some psychologists argue that term should be done away with since it makes it hard to understand the scope of mental illness. They also claim the term could worsen feelings of shame about mental health and depression. 

However, other experts argue that using the phrase may have more benefits than downsides. They noted that the term should be included in the next update to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

Get help if you suspect high-functioning depression.

It may be difficult to believe someone leading a highly active lifestyle suffers from depression. However, it is important to remember depression comes in diverse forms and can affect anyone. Depression even affects those living in comparatively ideal circumstances. If someone is experiencing symptoms of high-functioning depression, it is crucial to get help. 

It is vital to note depression is a treatable mental condition, and getting timely treatment increases the likelihood of success. First Light Recovery provides high-quality residential mental health treatments in Orange County, California. We leverage social rehabilitation treatment programs designed to serve clients experiencing mild, moderate, and chronic psychiatric impairment. Contact us today to learn more.