What is a High-Functioning Mental Illness?

Dec 2, 2022 | Mental Health

When most people think about someone suffering from a mental health disorder they picture what they typically see in anti-depressant ads. Someone who is clearly upset, sad, crying, and having difficulty getting out of bed. A person who is deliberately removing themselves from opportunities to spend time with friends and family. The individual at work who is reluctant to speak up or ask questions due to unnatural fear.

In many cases, mental illness does look that way. But there are also people who struggle in silence. Individuals who achieve successful careers, raise families and reach other accomplishments. These people are commonly referred to as having high-functioning mental illnesses. This is because from the outside they appear to cope just fine, but in reality, they are struggling.

High Functioning vs Low Functioning Mental Illness

High-functioning mental illness is characterized as an individual who appears high-functioning and successful in some areas of life, yet still experiences difficulties due to a mental health disorder. Low-functioning mental illness is generally defined by erratic behavior or difficulty performing basic tasks. Individuals who suffer from low-functioning mental illness are more obviously struggling whereas those with high-functioning appear to be completely fine.

There is a common misconception that it’s better to have a high-functioning mental illness since people appear to be able to overcome their struggles. However, the issue is more about people who struggle with mental illness getting the help they need. Because individuals with high-functioning mental illness appear to be fine, they are less likely to get what’s necessary.

What’s it Like to Suffer From High-Functioning Mental Illness?

high-functioning mental illness There is unfortunately still a stigma as it relates to mental illness. Luckily there has been some shift in society to people becoming more accepting and understanding of how mental health affects individuals. However, people who suffer from high-functioning mental illness are typically not able to receive as much acceptance or treatment help from an accredited source.

“You don’t look like you’re depressed.”

“Have you tried yoga for your anxiety?”

Many people wake up every day struggling with mental health disorders. Some individuals struggle more publically than others. Just because someone appears normal doesn’t mean they aren’t fighting an internal battle. High-functioning mental illness covers a very broad spectrum, but it basically means the mental illness is not easily detectable. But just because it is not detectable does not mean it’s any less stressful or overwhelming.

From the outside looking in, someone with high-functioning mental health disorders can appear completely normal. They have their hair done, their homes are in order, and they take care of their kids. In fact, many individuals with high-functioning mental illness can be over-achievers as they try to compensate for the struggle within.

The inability to easily recognize mental illness can make it difficult for people to take them seriously when they try to discuss their mental health concerns. As a result, it leads to a cycle of shame and avoidance. Discussing mental health issues is already difficult for most people. To be met with resistance only delays people getting treatment.

Dealing with mental illness is exhausting. This causes a person with high-functioning mental illness to feel absolutely drained throughout the day. They will typically find a way to push through and find a way to get things accomplished but it does take a toll. The amount of effort that it takes to accomplish common, daily tasks can be much more difficult than they should be.

A good way to explain the difference would be to compare two people running under different circumstances. One person is running on a treadmill, while the other is running on sand. It’s still possible to run on sand, but it is much more challenging.

Individuals with high-functioning mental illness constantly worry about how their mental health disorder will affect them each day. Will I have a panic attack? Will this activity dramatically shift my mood? The stress of worrying about symptoms causes an internal battle that people fight daily. People may also rearrange their days or plan for a panic episode to occur just to make sure they have a way to manage their symptoms should something happen.

High-functioning depression or anxiety can cause a person to be less likely to see their successes and contributions as valuable. If they are able to enjoy their achievements, it’s often short-lived as they feel uncomfortable having the spotlight placed on them for too long. This can cause individuals to have lower job rate satisfaction, bad work-life balance, and even struggle to enjoy time with friends and family. Similarly, their personal relationships may also struggle.

Regardless of someone’s achievements, individuals that suffer from high-functioning mental illness will always have a nagging voice of self-doubt. They always second-guess their own skills, talents, and contributions. For this reason, they have a hard time feeling satisfied regarding the work they put into their careers and relationships with others.

Sadly, it causes a person to spiral into negativity when they are given praise because they feel they are not worthy. They believe they are somehow fake or fooling people into believing they did something correctly.

Struggling with high-functioning mental illness also means having a problem saying no and standing up for oneself. These individuals like to pack their schedules with lots of activities because it means they won’t have to think as much about their mental health concerns. This means they are reluctant to not take on that extra project at work or help out at a charity function. They feel as though if they are constantly contributing and being productive, people will see them as valued.

Due to the fact that those with high-functioning mental illness struggle more throughout the day, this level of activity can severely burn them out and take a toll on their physical health as well. People are not machines and need to rest. For someone with high-functioning mental illness, they struggle with setting boundaries and feel guilty if they try to do so.

Why Isn’t High Functioning Mental Illness Taken More Seriously?

Simply put, people with high-functioning mental illness don’t really want the world to know they are frightening an internal battle. It’s much more difficult for them to open up about their struggle and if they do, they more easily deterred from doing something about it.

But behind the facade, they are struggling and that is important to remember. It doesn’t matter that they’re going to work, paying bills, or raising families. Their lives appear in order but they are deeply, deeply hurting. Many feel as though they are just going through the motions and struggling to find joy in life.

Because people are less like to talk about it, and many people don’t recognize it in loved ones and friends, it goes untreated. But it’s important to remember that the illness is very much present, and it is very much a problem.

Sadly, high-functioning mental illness is not a term that’s recognized by the psychiatric community, but it’s a label that’s been adopted by those that fit into this category. Since it’s not typically recognized as a diagnosis, little research is being done on its existence. This is a problem.

From December 3rd, 2020, to December 3rd, 2021, Google Trends showed consistent peaks for the keyword “high-functioning anxiety,” showing just how prevalent this disorder may be. There is clearly a disconnect between scientific research, knowledge, and how the public understands it. More research needs to be done on this topic since so many people related to this lived experience.

It is now widely understood among many psychologists and mental health professionals that mental illness exists on a spectrum. Diagnostic criteria from manuals such as the DSM or the ICD can be shown as people experience their disorders on a sliding scale. This means that someone can experience severe symptoms one week or one day and then have mild ones the next. It also means the way people experience and react to symptoms can also shift.

Labeling someone as “high-functioning” could mean that it is just another experience on the spectrum. Often, labels surrounding mental health are seen as something being “wrong” with you and those can be scary to accept.

Destigmatising Mental Health Conditions

The first step is to start making mental health diagnoses seen as normal and acceptable. You wouldn’t feel bad discussing the flu with your doctor, would you? Similarly, mental health disorders are not the result of the person doing something wrong, but rather they are the result of just being.

Having a “high-functioning” or “low-functioning” mental health disorder is meant to help individuals understand their mental illness. It should not be seen as a label that perpetuates negative stigmas. Mental illness is felt in a variety of ways on a wide spectrum. The first step is having a conversation and recognizing the way many people experience mental illness. This way more research can be done and more can be understood.

Getting Help for Mental Health Disorders Today!

high-functioning mental illness

Chapters Recovery offers comprehensive treatment for individuals suffering from co-occurring mental health disorders. We offer partial hospitalization, intensive outpatient, and outpatient programs for those that qualify. Our team of medical professionals can help you better understand your disorders and how to manage symptoms and triggers.

There are a variety of ways to address and overcome co-occurring disorders including therapy, medication, and holistic approaches. Our treatment center crafts individualized programs to aid each person in getting the help they need. Start a new chapter in your life and contact us today!

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