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What is High-Functioning Depression?

What thoughts come to your mind when you think of depression or what a depressed person looks like? Maybe it’s a picture of someone in a dark room. Stuck in their bed sleeping all day. That person is definitely isolated and isn’t able to find motivation. Probably experiencing suicidal thoughts.

This is not always true.

There are many people who experience high-functioning depression. This is a type of depression that a person hides well. They are still able to perform at life, but still feel much of the depressed emotions.

Here are some characteristics of high-functioning depression:

Symptom of High-Functioning Depression #1 — Driven to Function:

People experiencing high-functioning, or “working,” depression show some level of productivity as a professional or student. In fact, it is their internal drive to be productive that may compel them to get up and get moving.

Still, the symptoms of depression remain. They are just hidden.

And that can be a specific challenge that people experiencing high-functioning depression face. They appear to be doing okay. Everything looks good on the outside. But internally, there is a lack of peace.

So, this person refuses to seek out help. And no one thinks to ask how this person is doing.

Symptom of High-Functioning Depression #2 — Low Energy:

A person with high-functioning depression may look like they are performing alright. But this person may be experiencing low energy. No amount of sleep or caffeine provides long-term help.

These bouts of low energy may make it more difficult for this person to do tasks or chores. Especially following a day at work or school. A person with high-functioning depression may want to escape into the safety of their room for rest as soon as possible.

Symptom of High-Functioning Depression #3 — Chronic Expressions of Sadness:

There is a thinking that someone facing high-functioning depression can “get over it.” That’s usually not the case. Unlike Seasonal Affective Disorder, high-functioning depression is not linked seasons or weather.

A person may describe their high-functioning depression as a sadness or melancholy to push through. Others may describe it as a weight of worthlessness. Or an attempt to numb out emotions so to ignore the pain.

High-functioning depression does not typically go away on its own. It may need a wholistic approach to health, including the help of a professional mental health counselor.

Symptom of High-Functioning Depression #4 — Trouble Focusing or Concentrating:

It takes a great deal of energy to focus or concentrate on a task. People experiencing high-functioning depression often expend greater amounts of emotional and mental energy throughout the day.

With this being the case, it means that there is less available energy to buckle down and focus. There is a cycle that takes place. A person with depression has to fight to complete a big project or study for a final. If that person falls behind, there is a sense of failure and guilt that begins to crop up.

A person in this cycle of depression is taking on not just the task, but the emotions of falling behind. Of failing. And of the guilt that comes from failure.

Symptom of High-Functioning Depression #5 – Negative Self-Talk:

We all do this to some extent. But the negative messages about self is much stronger for those experiencing depression. There is a voice that consistently delivers messages playing in your mind. “You’re not good enough. You’re worthless. You can’t do it.”

People experiencing high-functioning depression have these messages playing in their mind at an increased level. And it takes effort to push against those messages.


Depression can often be hidden by the drive or ability to perform. If a person does not fit into the collective picture or view of what we think depression looks like, then it is often dismissed as sadness. As something to push through or “get over.”

High-functioning depression can be managed, and even healed. But you may require a little extra help. You can get that help from a professional mental health therapist.


Jason Wilkinson is a mental health counselor serving the Tualatin, Lake Oswego, and Portland Metro area in Oregon. His practice, Wellspace Counseling, helps individuals and marriages reach their goals emotional and mental wellness.


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