What is high-functioning depression? Is it different from depression?

Depression can make you feel isolated and lethargic. It can be hard to take care of yourself, or even get out of bed in the morning. However, in rare cases, some people with depression are able to keep functioning to an almost normal degree, despite experiencing most of the same symptoms as others with depression. 

This can have a variety of causes, from having milder symptoms to having persistent depressive disorder (PDD) and learning to manage your symptoms. Whatever the case may be, “high-functioning” doesn’t mean that talking to a professional and receiving treatment is any less important.

How Would You Define High-Functioning Depression?

High-functioning depression is a term used to define depression that, while meeting clinical diagnosis criteria, does not exhibit a level of functional impairment usually seen with depression. This term is used colloquially, though—“high-functioning depression” is not a clinically diagnosable condition. 

What Does It Mean if You’re High-Functioning?

The term “high-functioning” usually indicates that one’s ability to function is relatively unimpaired while other symptoms of depression are present. That means that symptoms of depression like sadness, lack of motivation, or a loss of interest in things someone used to enjoy may be present, but they aren’t as debilitating or inhibiting as with other cases. 

Depression is a condition that affects mood, motivation, thoughts, and one’s overall ability to function. With most cases of depression, symptoms impair functioning at varying severities. However, some depressed people can continue to function almost normally, whether shouldering mild or severe depressive symptoms. 

It isn’t very common for anyone with symptoms severe enough to be classified as a depressive disorder, such as major depressive disorder (MDD), to function with little to no impairment from their symptoms.

However, this doesn’t mean that dealing with “high-functioning” depression is easier than it is for others with depression. Sometimes, people may appear “high-functioning” because they are experiencing milder symptoms, but others may, for a variety of reasons, function almost normally while experiencing much more severe symptoms. 

In fact, sometimes the term “high-functioning” in reference to people dealing with depression can be stigmatizing, acting as an assumption that just because their symptoms are less obvious, an individual is also struggling less or more equipped to deal with their symptoms.

No matter how severe your symptoms are, if you feel depressed, talk to a mental health professional about your symptoms. They can help you process what you’re feeling and give you guidance on how to manage it.

What Is an Example of High-Functioning?

An example of someone living with “high-functioning” depression would be attending work with unimpaired work performance while experiencing significant mental health symptoms. Perhaps they also manage to keep their space clean or perform tasks on time while experiencing symptoms of depression.

One reason that this might occur is if someone has PDD, also known as dysthymia. Because their depression and symptoms are persistent and continue to occur over a long period of time—months, even years—people with the condition often have to learn to function around their depression, making it look like their functioning and performance are minimally impaired by their symptoms, though they are likely still receiving treatment.

What Is the Difference Between High-Functioning Depression and Regular Depression?

With more severe or “regular” cases of depression, depressive symptoms will impair an individual’s ability to be active and perform tasks, to the point of hindering their lives and work. 

Again, when someone has depression with symptoms that less obviously hinder an individual’s life, some people refer to those symptoms as “high-functioning” due to that person’s ability to continue functioning almost normally. However, this does not mean that treatment or professional help would not be necessary or beneficial for people seen as “high-functioning.”

Their symptoms are not necessarily any less severe for being less obvious or impairing. Someone who is “high-functioning” and dealing with depression can have mild to severe symptoms, though functioning normally can take a serious toll on their mental health.

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What Are the Problems With High-Functioning?

High-functioning can often lead to a misdiagnosis or underdiagnosis of depression, which can then delay or prevent access to necessary care and treatment. 

It can also prevent people from getting the emotional support they need from those around them. If they continue to function somewhat normally, it can be easy to miss or dismiss mood- or sleep-related symptoms of depression. People around the individual might not realize how needed their support is for that person, causing them to bear their condition on their own.

Because they are less likely to receive support or treatment if they are not already receiving it, people functioning at a high level while experiencing depression may experience frequent burnout and can come across as irritable or having low-mood as a result.

How Do You Know If You Are Struggling With High-Functioning Depression?

If you’re wondering why things like getting to work or spending time with friends feels so hard, but you’re noticing that you aren’t experiencing significant impairment, you may be experiencing symptoms of “high-functioning” depression.

People with depression will also experience the same feelings of difficulty when considering being active or socializing, but their depression will often impair their motivation or will to go, causing them to stay in alone instead. Since depression is often isolating and debilitating, they’ll present differently from those considered “high-functioning,” likely having a hard time leaving their home or even their bed and having trouble keeping up appearances. 

Those with depression that are instead “high-functioning” will still have the same symptoms like sadness, lack of joy, low energy, and irritability, but they will go through life very differently. If you are experiencing symptoms like these but have not considered that you might be depressed or sought help due to your ability to function and go about your life, talk to a mental health professional about what you’ve been feeling.

How Do You Overcome High-Functioning Depression?

The best way to treat or “overcome” high-functioning depression is the same as it is for standard depression—seek the help of a mental health professional.

They will be able to help you identify your symptoms, come up with a treatment plan, and give you the tools you need to effectively manage your symptoms. Just because “high-functioning” depressive symptoms are less functionally debilitating doesn’t mean they aren’t still taking a toll on your mental health. 

In terms of diagnosis and treatment, depression is depression. Whether you are “high-functioning” or not, you deserve compassionate treatment from a qualified professional for your symptoms.

Table of contents

How Would You Define High-Functioning Depression?

What Does It Mean if You’re High-Functioning?

What Is the Difference Between High-Functioning Depression and Regular Depression?

What Are the Problems With High-Functioning?

How Do You Know If You Are Struggling With High-Functioning Depression?

How Do You Overcome High-Functioning Depression?

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Kate Hanselman, PMHNP in New Haven, CT

Kate Hanselman, PMHNP-BC

Kate Hanselman is a board-certified Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP-BC). She specializes in family conflict, transgender issues, grief, sexual orientation issues, trauma, PTSD, anxiety, behavioral issues, and women’s issues.

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Laura Harris, LCMHC

Laura Harris is a Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor (LCMHC). She specializes in anger, anxiety, depression, stress management, coping strategies development, and problem-solving skills.

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  • Griffiths, J., Ravindran, A., Merali, Z., & Anisman, H. (2000). Dysthymia: a review of pharmacological and behavioral factors. Molecular Psychiatry, 5(3), 242–261. https://doi.org/10.1038/sj.mp.4000697

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