Successful. Overachiever. High-Functioning. Depressed.

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.

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3 comments

  1. I ***so*** get this! Punished for being able to keep it together and be high achieving while destroying yourself mentally and emotionally. Of course it is possible to be this way, and I bet there is a good sized percentage of executives who live in this constant state.

    What would happen if you did not let a doctor tell you that there is nothing wrong with you because of this achievement or that promotion? When they pointed to your grades, your accomplishments – what if you told them about how you felt – all of the time, your fears, the emotional torture you endure, the pain, all of it? I actually think you probably have tried this. Depending on how you convey it, how in the world can they then tell you that there is nothing wrong? Would they really say that yours is a life that is made to be suffered – for the REST OF YOUR LIFE? Actually – you could shock them and say EXACTLY that! Yes, it would take them by surprise, but you know what? I guarantee you that you would then have their full attention. There has to be something that can be done to make people see you are in unbearable pain. Unfortunately, you are the only one that can do that. I am not normally an aggressive person *at all*, but I have learned the hard way, when it comes to the psychiatrist, I have no other choice. Good luck and I hope you give it another try – you are SO worth it. xoxoxo

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  2. Thank you for this eloquent article. As a high school student in Canada, I personally appreciate the extent to which this speaks for me as an individual. I happen to be a person who brings home 100% on assessments and straight A reports, takes parts in seven school clubs, and volunteers for the Salvation Army and the City Green Ambassadors. I present myself to the outside world as efficient, refined and cooperative. But I am also a person who self-harms several times a week, and a suicide attempt survivor. This article really brings awareness to the loved ones of those who are climbing the success ladder but are drowning in pressure and low self-confidence. People need to realize that some depressed individuals don’t smoke, drink or take drugs—they don’t look depressed or stressed—but they still need love, compassion and caring. Please do something kind for a high achiever today ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Julia,
      Thank you for your thoughtful comment! I am so happy you are still with us, and hope that you are doing okay ❤️ There are a ton of challenges that come with being high-functioning, and opening up about your mental health can be super difficult when you come across as totally okay. Please, please, please keep speaking up if you’re not okay! Help is always out there and you deserve that love, compassion, and caring you mentioned. Congratulations on all your accomplishments and remember that your mental health is just as important!

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