I read an article this morning about high-functioning depression, and how it can be surprisingly dangerous because it is so often overlooked. If you’re wondering what high-functioning depression is, I think I basically fit the description perfectly.
On the outside, I look very successful and people are surprised to discover how much I struggle with my mental health. I have a stellar education, am moving across the country for my dream job, remain involved in the mental health community, and have a social life many would envy (ugh, end bragging). At the same time, I have suicidal tendencies, crippling anxiety and depression, and a plethora of other mental health struggles. Some people think the two can’t exist together – severe mental illness and a successful/stable lifestyle. But trust me, they do. They definitely do.
The high-functioning people with mental illness are in the most danger, because they’re the most overlooked. It’s the easiest to say they’re doing “fine” because apparently the severity of a mental illness is quantified by how far you’ve spiraled down in your life.
I’ve been denied help from professionals because I didn’t seem severe enough. That was actually their reaction. You see, they wanted to understand how debilitating my mental illness was, and hearing how high my GPA was and how involved in school I was seemed to give them the impression I was actually totally fine. People like me – the high-functioning, “capable” ones are the ones that slip through the cracks. We’re the people that get left behind, forgotten about, or left untreated because we can “get by”. It takes a serious shake up like a suicide attempt or mental breakdown to be taken seriously. Apparently preventative mental health care, or early intervention, are luxuries a system designed to respond to high risk situations can’t afford.
“Clearly things are going okay if you’re still managing to pass your classes. I don’t really know what more we can do for you since you seem to be handling things quite well.” A doctor told me this when I was in the hospital this past January, desperate for something to help bring me out of the darkness that had become my life. It’s a ridiculous viewpoint to have, because being able to go through the motions doesn’t change the internal battles people fight every day.
As a high-functioning person, I also place a lot of pressure on myself to live up to my expectation of what success is. Sometimes I will jeopardize my mental health in order to keep up with my appearances or responsibilities. It’s why suicides by high-functioning people always seem to come out of nowhere. Take Robin Williams for example, or look at any wealthy and successful person who died by suicide, and there will often be statements like “it came out of nowhere” and “no one saw it coming”. Was it really out of nowhere though? Sometimes, if you’re willing to look closely enough, there are warning signs. Other times, there aren’t because the high-functioning aspect is so strong that it is dangerously easy to hide the deep depression and hopelessness.
Mental illness comes in all shapes and sizes, and just because a person can’t tick off all the symptom boxes about how much they’ve had to give up in their life doesn’t make their struggles any less real. We need to validate the struggles of all people with mental illness, not just the ones who have quantifiable and outward consequences. We have to stop letting people slip through the cracks because they’re just “not bad enough”.
Keep Surviving by Living.