July 19, 2024

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High-Functioning Depression: Symptoms, Treatment, and More

4 min read

High-functioning depression is a non-medical term that refers to having symptoms of depression but being able to carry out routine tasks with little issue. The term has popped up on treatment center websites and health blogs to describe people who are seemingly managing their depression without major problems.

There’s no way to clinically test for high-functioning depression since it’s not a medical diagnosis, but providers can screen for depression in general and recommend treatments. Here’s what else you need to know.

What qualifies as high-functioning depression is still somewhat subjective, as there’s little to no research on the condition. The description has popped up as a way to characterize people with low mood, low energy, and anxiety. The idea is that, despite these symptoms, individuals can still continue fulfilling their responsibilities.

Steven Huprich, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Detroit Mercy, told Health that something in a person’s nature—”a particular type of negative self-image”—may fuel that person’s chronic unhappiness. They might describe mood symptoms along with feelings of guilt, self-criticism, and perfectionism.

Major Depression vs. High-Functioning Depression

High-functioning depression and major depression can be related. Major depression is the classic, episodic type that causes low mood or loss of interest or pleasure in doing things, among other symptoms.

This type of depression has categories from mild to severe, depending on how many symptoms a person has. In particular, individuals with mild major depression may be able to mask depressive symptoms in their day-to-day and still be able to function in activities like work, school, or social situations.

With that in mind, some people with major depression could potentially be deemed as having a high-functioning version of the mood disorder. They may tend to be individuals with a lot of determination who are willing to endure significant symptoms without asking for help, Johnny Williamson, MD, board-certified psychiatrist at Spectrum Behavioral Health in the greater Chicagoland area, told Health.

High-functioning depression isn’t a true medical diagnosis. You won’t find it listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5-TR), a manual that assists in assessing and diagnosing mental health conditions.

Dr. Williamson said the term is useful because it’s “readily understandable.” It encompasses people who don’t necessarily fit neatly into traditional diagnostic categories, added Dr. Williamson.

People often fill three or four main roles in their lives: vocation (meaning work or school), intimate partner or spouse, parent, and friend or community member, Michael Thase, MD, professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine and co-author of Beating the Blues: New Approaches to Overcoming Dysthymia and Chronic Mild Depression, told Health.

Assessing how active you are in your roles can help a mental health professional gauge high-functioning depression, said Dr. Thase. “You may notice that there’s a hole in this person’s extracurricular life.”

In addition, there’s no clinical test for this kind of depression, but you can still go through the process for a depression diagnosis. Primary healthcare providers and mental health professionals use various screening tools to assess patients’ depressive symptoms and functioning. For example, they may ask questions like:

  • Are you unhappy or blue?
  • Do you cry a lot?
  • Do you have low energy?
  • Do you have sleep problems?

This type of depression can require the same general treatments for depression overall. Since depression treatment is highly individualized, however, every person’s regimen will differ. Their treatment plan might involve one or a combination of the following:

  • Lifestyle changes, like creating time to be more active or engaging with others
  • Medication such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)
  • Talk therapy—also called psychotherapy

Managing depression on your own doesn’t mean you don’t have the option to ask for help. You might start by consulting a primary healthcare provider, contacting an employee assistance program, or calling a therapist.

You’ll also want to see a healthcare provider for the following:

  • Crying episodes without cause
  • Experiencing thoughts of suicide
  • Having more than three signs of depression, or persistent depression that affects different areas of your life for over two weeks
  • Hearing voices that are not present
  • Suspecting a child or teen is depressed
  • Suspecting that medications may be a cause of your depression

While it’s not an official diagnosis, high-functioning depression is a type of depression that does not significantly interfere with a person’s day-to-day activities. Symptoms may be similar to that of mild major depression, where a person has few signs of depression.

The important point is to seek help—regardless of the type of depression you may have—because it is treatable. Providers can screen you for depressive symptoms and work with you to determine the best treatment plan, which can involve therapy, medication, or lifestyle modifications.

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