Depression in Disguise: Unraveling High-Functioning Depression

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Depression is a serious mood disorder that affects how a person thinks, feels, and manages daily activities and responsibilities. There are a few different types of depression, such as major depression, persistent depressive disorder, seasonal affective disorder, and perinatal depression.1 The severity of symptoms ranges from mild to severe and varies from person to person.

There is also a term known as “high-functioning depression,” a colloquial, non-medical term used to informally describe people who meet the criteria for a depression diagnosis but manage to conceal their condition while functioning in daily life. It recognizes those who keep their struggle with depression a secret as they show a smile to the outside world.

What does high-functioning depression look like? What can you keep an eye out for if you’re worried about a loved one, and where can you find them the help they need?

What Does High-Functioning Depression Look Like?

High-functioning depression is a useful term because, as Rebecca Brendel of the American Psychiatric Association explains, it emphasizes “a really important point that people can be suffering with mental illness and still appear outwardly to be able to function or not appear mentally ill to an outside observer.”2

What are some signs of high-functioning depression?

A Facade of Happiness

Individuals with high-functioning depression are masters at maintaining a facade of happiness. They smile, crack jokes, and go to great lengths to appear cheerful to the outside world, even though they may be battling inner demons. This façade can be a way of shielding their true emotions from others, as well as from themselves.

High Achievers with Hidden Pain

Many people with high-functioning depression are overachievers. They excel in their careers, academics, or other activities. They keep themselves extremely busy as a way to distract from their emotional pain. Their achievements can be a way of seeking validation or escaping their feelings of inadequacy.

Social Engagement with a Catch

Despite maintaining active social lives, those with high-functioning depression often feel isolated and disconnected. Their interactions with others are carefully curated, and they might withdraw or isolate themselves when they’re alone. The loneliness they feel may not be apparent to those around them.

Fatigue and Sleep Issues

Paradoxically, despite their high levels of productivity, people with high-functioning depression often struggle with fatigue and sleep disturbances. This might manifest as insomnia or excessive sleeping, further impacting their overall well-being.

Physical Symptoms

High-functioning depression can also manifest in physical ways. Headaches, stomachaches, and other unexplained aches and pains can become commonplace. These physical symptoms are often related to the stress and tension that accompany depression.

Irritability and Mood Swings

Increased irritability and mood swings can be a manifestation of high-functioning depression. These emotional changes are often unexplained to those around them, further isolating the individual.

Substance Use as a Coping Mechanism

Some individuals turn to alcohol or drugs to temporarily numb their emotional pain or escape their feelings. This can exacerbate their condition and lead to further complications.

Finding Depression Treatment

Recognizing high-functioning depression is vital because it is just as serious as any other form of depression. These individuals may not fit the stereotypical image of someone with depression, making it easy for their struggles to go unnoticed. The key to addressing high-functioning depression is open and non-judgmental conversations about mental health.

Encouraging those who are struggling to seek help and support is essential. If you or someone you know is experiencing high-functioning depression, don’t hesitate to reach out to a mental health treatment program like Pasadena Villa. We’re equipped to help your loved one overcome their difficulties with depression and find freedom from their symptoms. Call us at 407-574-5190 or submit an online contact form today to speak with an admissions specialist and find the best program for your needs.


  1. National Institute of Mental Health. (2023). Depression.
  2. Washington Post. (2022). What does ‘high-functioning depression’ mean?.

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