Her Campus Logo Her Campus Logo
Wellness > Mental Health

What Is High-Functioning Depression? What Mental Health Experts Want You To Know

Content warning: This story mentions anxiety, depression, and suicide.

It’s safe to say that Gen Zers have a lot of reasons as to why they may struggle with anxiety and depression. Maybe you’re managing heavy college course loads, long hours at an internship, determining if grad school is for you, or figuring out exactly what you really want to do with the rest of your life after college. You might be tired of new COVID-19 variants popping up every few months, trying to find a compatible SO, or blind-sighted by unexpected drama with your bestie. With all of these factors, Gen Zers may be battling what TikTok has labeled as “high-functioning depression.”

Maybe, you’ve seen TikToks about high-functioning depression all over your FYP. But what really is high-functioning depression? How many Gen Zers have it? And how does the invisibleness of the condition keep us from identifying those that might be struggling with it? 

For more reasons than one, it’s important for all of us to have the answers to these questions. So, I spoke with Licensed Counselor Dr. Katina Pittman and Clinical Therapist Dr. Omi Dobbins to find out more about high-functioning depression— here’s what they want you to know.

“High Functioning Depression is still just that…depression.”

There are many reasons why someone may be struggling..People who are battling their mental health may have trouble maintaining their academics, jobs, relationships, and other factors in their lives. But high functioning depression, which is actually referred to as Persistent Depressive Disorder by mental health professionals, is a very real and complex mental illness that isn’t marked by severe functioning issues, according to Medical News Today,. In fact, although high functioning is still not fully functioning, many people with high-functioning depression are extremely productive.

“There are people who struggle internally, but are still able to get up each day, go to work, go to school, have a huge smile, and have this exterior appearance that they are doing well when deep down inside they are suffering,” Pittman tells Her Campus. “These individuals tend to have high-functioning depression. They may feel numb, empty, like an imposter, hopeless, or have no passion for anything, but they can still achieve their goals and smile in the presence of others.”

It’s An “Invisible Illness.”

Mental health professionals agree that one of the biggest challenges of high-functioning depression is that it is an “invisible illness,” if that makes sense. See, if I had a cough or runny nose, you’d be able to see, hear, and more than likely guess that I have a cold, the flu or COVID from my visible symptoms. Maybe you’d be a nice human and offer me orange juice and tissues. And by the next week, I’d be good as new because you could spot and/or hear what was wrong with me. But with high-functioning depression, there aren’t always a boatload of visible symptoms that can help us determine who might be struggling with it. While it can cause low energy, fluctuations in appetite, and other changes, these symptoms don’t always happen to all high-functioning depression patients and are also associated with other non-mental health conditions.

“Most people think depression is sadness, crying, not being able to get out of bed, and not being able to do normal activities,” Pittman says. “Many assume that there must be some significant stress contributing to the depression. However, high-functioning depression looks different and there may or may not be a significant stressor.”

While high-functioning depression can obviously keep people from helping others because it doesn’t typically have visible symptoms, Dobbins says that the invisibleness of the condition can also keep those who have it from realizing that they need help. In essence, the illusion of being a productive person can actually make those suffering from the condition very unsure of what is really wrong with them.

“Those suffering with high functioning depression oftentimes don’t think anything is wrong with themselves because they are meeting all of their targets,” Dobbins tells Her Campus. “They are getting their work and daily responsibilities done, so they just push forward not knowing that something’s wrong.”

Numbers Suggest That High-Functioning Depression Might Be Hitting Gen Zers Hard

Pittman says, in a nutshell, that it’s hard to determine just how many Gen Zers have high-functioning depression because of the nature of the condition. Since high-functioning depression is a condition that allows people to push through their depression in such a successful way, they themselves might believe that there is no need to share their feelings with a mental health professional. The stigma that surrounds mental health, according to a study in Psychological Medicine, also keeps over  90,000 people worldwide from reporting their symptoms because they don’t want to be labeled as “weird” or “crazy.” This, in turn, causes no or very low reported numbers that more than likely aren’t reflective of the number of people who struggle with mental health conditions like high-functioning depression.

In reality, high-functioning depression may be heavily affecting Gen Z. In fact, according to Medical News Today, depression rates increased by over 46% in people aged 18-21 from 2009 to 2017. And when asked, 70% of Gen Zers admitted that depression and anxiety were a “major problem” for their friends. So, while there isn’t an exact number on how many Gen Zers specifically have high-functioning depression, it’s probably an issue that’s hitting our generation hard.

now, more than ever, it’s important to seek help.

While diagnosing yourself is a big “no” and should strictly be left up to the professionals, it’s important to always get help if you don’t feel right. Even if you’re on top of your game at school and work, your relationships with your bestie and SO are going great, and you’re completing day-to-day basic tasks, you could still be experiencing high-functioning depression. Mental health professionals want you to know that despite the invisibleness and stigma that surrounds high-functioning depression, help is always available and there is nothing wrong with reaching out for it.

“Any form of depression is difficult, regardless of whether you are high functioning or your depression is consistent or occasional,” Pittman says. “If you are an individual who struggles with depression, even in its mildest forms, please don’t hesitate to reach out for help. There are many counselors, psychologists, and psychiatrists who specialize in treating all forms of depression. We are here to help and don’t want you to suffer in silence. “

Dobbins also states that since “treatment is available and even more accessible than ever now,” you can easily get help with high-functioning depression and any other concerns relating to your mood. You can speak with a mental health professional or your primary care doctor. And you can even visit the Mental Health America website to find one of their affiliates near you, which will provide local resources like hotlines, wellness centers, clinics, and hospitals.  

Supporting the people in your life is essential. full stop.

It’s difficult to help our relatives, besties, and SOs when their symptoms aren’t visible. It’s even more difficult when they can’t necessarily tell us exactly what’s wrong. But it’s still super important to help them and be as supportive as you can throughout their mental health journey. Dobbins has a few effective ways that you can help the people you love.

“Check in with your loved ones and know what questions to ask,” Dobbins says. “Open-ended questions that allow them to share their honest experience in a safe space are the best questions: How long have you been feeling this way? When was the last time you felt happy or excited about something? How do you usually handle disappointment? And remember that the greatest show of support you can offer someone struggling with any mental illness is entering into a partnership to help connect them to proper mental health resources.”

If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.

Hannah Watson is a Senior at Kennesaw State University majoring in Journalism and Emerging Media. Since high school, she has aspired to be a successful journalist. Actively, she works to unveil the diverse views and lifestyles of those within society and effectively inform all who will listen. As a Her Campus Kennesaw writer, she is seeking the pursuit of excellence in the dissemination of transcending information, gaining experience and encouraging women. Hannah is also a creative writer, bookworm and lover of music. She enjoys writing on all topics.