High-Functioning Depression: Yes, Sometimes Mental Illness is “Invisible” 

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In January, Chelsie Kryst, who was Miss USA 2019 died by suicide. Her death brought up some questions around the topic of high functioning depression. Kryst’s mother said that her daughter had been struggling with depression that she hid from everyone. Here’s one of Kryst’s last videos on Tik Tok, which she posted on January 26th, just 4 days before her death. As you can see from the video, it’s to spot high functioning depression symptoms in someone else.

Kryst’s death brings up a really important point that a person can have depression — severe enough to lead to death — and still function at work, at school, and in their relationships with friends and family. There are certain stereotypes about depression that make it hard for people to really identify it. They often imagine a person with depression as someone who spends all day in bed crying — when in fact, the person may not appear to be depressed from the outside, at all. 

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What is High Functioning Depression? 

Are you wondering “Is high-functioning depression even real?” The term is not actually a clinical diagnosis as defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5).  The term is really a buzzword that has popped up a lot lately in the media. But that doesn’t mean a person can’t be depressed and function “normally.” 

Persistent Depressive Disorder (PDD) is the actual clinical diagnosis that a person with high functioning depression might be given. This is a type of depression that is characterized by persistent mood changes, such as sadness or irritability. For a person to be diagnosed with PDD, the symptoms have to be present for at least two years. 

The symptoms of persistent depressive disorder are similar to those in major depression, except that they are less severe. For that reason, the symptoms might be quite subtle. For example,  a person with PDD might feel a general emptiness that seems to never go completely away or have chronic low self-esteem. 

High Functioning Depression Symptoms

It can be hard to identify the signs of depression someone else. It’s often an invisible illness. In fact, Kryst’s depression was so well-hidden that even people close to the former Miss USA had no clue of how serious her depression was. Singer JoJo, who was a friend of Kryst’s wrote on Instagram that she had spent four hours with the late star just weeks before her death and that they “had the best time. Laughing, learning about each other, sharing stories.” 

Her death was so surprising that some thought the news of it must have been a mistake. Other people speculated that foul play was involved (it wasn’t). One Tik Tok commenter wrote, “The fact that she was still making content makes me hope they do a full investigation. I just think she would have gotten distant.”  The point is that it can be very hard to spot the signs of depression. 

It can be just as hard to recognize the symptoms in our own lives. Nevertheless, there are some signs that someone may be dealing with this condition. Here are some things to look out for: 

  • Changes in sleep 
  • Difficulties with concentration or memory issues
  • Changes in eating patterns 
  • Feeling hopeless 
  • Changes in mood 
  • Chronic low self-esteem 

Should We Even Use The Term “High Functioning Depression?”

There is some debate among mental health professionals about using this term due to stigma. Although most experts say that it is fine to say “high functioning depression” as it lets others know that a person can have high functioning depression and anxiety and appear to be okay from the outside. Becoming more aware of this can help remind us that depression can have many faces. People can function much differently with the disorder. There is a persistent stereotype with mental illness that a person with depression will appear sad all of the time. That is simply not true. 

This is important because the risk for suicide is higher for a person with depression — no matter what kind it is. I think that is why it is “okay” to use the term.

High Functioning Depression Treatment

High functioning depression symptoms

Sometimes people who experience this type of depression have trouble getting help because they seem to be doing “just fine.” Society often tells us to “just deal with it” when it comes to depression symptoms. A person may have internalized these messages, feeling silly for getting therapy — thinking they really don’t need it. 

However, it’s important to get treatment for depression  — even if it doesn’t feel severe. A person with depression needs treatment. It’s never too early to get treatment. Clinical depression doesn’t follow a predictable course. Things like stress, hormonal changes, and illness can cause depression to worsen quite quickly and severely. Getting treatment can help you identify ways to deal with symptoms when they do increase. 

If you or a loved one is experiencing high functioning depression symptoms, it’s important to know that there are many treatment options available. High functioning depression treatment includes many options from psychotherapy to medications. 

If you or a loved one is struggling with thoughts of suicide or suicidal behaviors, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you need immediate help, call 911.

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