One of the biggest disservices you can do to your mental health is to decide that you don’t need help because your mental health isn’t “as bad as others.” Everyone experiences mental illness differently. Environmental factors, support networks, financial status, and personal sensitivities can all impact how someone reacts to a depressive or anxious episode, for instance. That is why some people seem to have a “higher functioning” mental illness than others.
But what does that mean, and why is it still important to get the help you need? Although the terms “high functioning” anxiety and depression get thrown around frequently, there is nothing clinical about this designation; in fact, in some cases, it can keep people from getting the help they need. Mental illness is mental illness, and it still deserves support.
What Does “High Functioning” Mental Illness Look Like?
Many people will consider themselves to be “high functioning” in the midst of their anxiety, depression, or ADHD if they’re still able to go to work, spend time with friends, and go about their daily routine. This is often born of a “not as bad as others” comparison. You hear about someone not being able to get out of bed because they’re so depressed and think, “That’s not me, so I must not really have a problem.”
People struggling from mental illness have a tendency not to trust their own perspective, especially given the stigma surrounding mental illness. It’s easy to convince yourself, “It’s all in my head, I’m just doing this for attention.” You may feel shame about “wasting the time” of a mental health provider, keeping you from seeking help. But just like physical health, it is always better to be safe than sorry.
What Is “High Functioning” Mental Illness Actually?
In reality, most people who have “high functioning” mental health struggles may have a particular type of mental illness which exhibits mild symptoms but still requires care, or they may have environmental conditions that pressure them to “mask” their mental illness. Some instances of high functioning depression or anxiety are actually:
Dysthymia (Persistent Depressive Disorder)
Dysthymia, sometimes called persistent depressive disorder, is a form of depression which is characterized by milder symptoms and depressive episodes that last longer. With major depression, patients experience depressive episodes that can last for a period of weeks or months. On the other hand, persistent depression can have episodes that last for several months or even years. Someone with dysthymia can experience symptoms such as:
- Sadness or emptiness
- Fatigue or a lack of interest in usual activities
- Low self-esteem
- Difficulty with focus
- Issues with appetite
- Sleep problems
- Feelings of hopelessness
With dysthymia, you may still be able to go about your usual routine, making it to work on time and interacting with friends — but you may feel a little low. It can feel as though you’re tired or burned out, or that you’re just in a bit of a funk. Even with mild symptoms, people who have dysthymia can still find significant relief and changes to their lifestyle with the help of therapy and medication.
A Combination of Depression and Anxiety
Depression and anxiety often go hand-in-hand. You may feel depressed with low energy, but also anxious about disappointing the people in your life, losing your job, failing out of school, etc. For some, this combination can be paralyzing, creating a spiral of shame and lethargy. For others, however, the anxiety and fear leads to a pressure to perform despite the way you might be feeling.
You may push yourself in school, work, or social situations. It may appear on the outside that you have your mental health under control, but pushing yourself too hard is often followed by a heavy “crash.”
There is a stigma against mental illness and seeking help for those mental illnesses. People are often afraid to be viewed as “crazy,” even though the truth is over 41 million Americans go to therapy or seek some treatment for their mental health. Because of this stigma, you may be afraid of showing any signs of weakness or mental illness to those around you. This again often leads to masking mental illness, appearing to be “high functioning” while inside you feel like you have no outlet or support for your emotional wellbeing.
Lack of Representation
ADHD famously tends to look different in men and women, and we have written previously about the differences in depression between men and women. This can apply to other demographics, as well. For instance, people in older generations who had less access to mental healthcare may have more of a “tough it out” mentality than those in younger generations. BIPOC people may not see representation of mental illness as they experience it. This can all lead to a sense of assuming that your mental illness “isn’t as bad as others” and failing to seek help.
Other Environmental Factors
Some may feel that they have no choice but to be high functioning during a mental health episode. Parents still need to feed their children. Those living below the poverty line still need to be able to pay their bills. Someone with a high pressure job, or from a family that puts pressure on them to perform, may feel that they just don’t “have time” to slow down due to mental health. And those without a support network may feel that they don’t have a safety net if they have a mental health episode.
As with many of the above factors, it is possible to mask your mental illness and pretend to carry on as normal. However, this rarely lasts for a long period of time. “Toughing it out” through mental illness without the support of an experienced professional often causes an increase in symptoms and eventually a hard crash and burn.
Don’t try to go through your mental health struggles alone just because you believe yourself to be “high functioning.” You still deserve support and treatment so that you can live a full and meaningful life. Contact Rivia Mind today to learn more about how we can help or to schedule a free 15 minute consultation.