Real Talk: Why We Need to Talk About High-Functioning Depression

June 10, 2018

Two celebrities, Katherine Noel Brosnahan (Kate Spade) and Anthony Bourdain took their own lives last week. In addition to the usual onslaught of media attention and best wishes for the loved ones they left behind, there was a surprising amount of shock expressed.

While of course it’s shocking when a celebrity dies, or when someone takes their own life, what really surprised me was the messages of shock that “such successful people could take their own-lives.”

… Really?! Do we still have that little understanding of depression? High-functioning depression is something that does not get talked about enough. And today, I’m going to do my part to change that.

After the deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, I took to my instagram and asked whether or not my followers would want to see a “Real Talk” series post on mental health and young professionals. To be honest, I’ve wanted to write a post on this topic since I began the Real Talk series here on LegalLee Blonde, but I wasn’t sure anyone would want to read it. I was wrong, and 97% of the hundreds of followers who took the poll voted yes.

The general topic of mental health among young working professionals is, clearly, quite broad and I know I could not do the issue justice by trying to cram everything into this one post. So, for today, sparked by such successful working professionals taking their own-lives, I am going to focus on high-functioning depression.

Before I move on, let me preface this entire post by saying I am not a doctor. This post should not and does not, serve as a replacement for medical advice, but rather is a way to open a dialogue and raise awareness. I’ll include links to a number of resources/scholarly articles at the end of this post.

What Is High-Functioning Depression?

High-functioning depression is not a stand-alone mental disorder in the DSM-5, rather, it is a term used to describe a certain level of depression in which the individual suffering is still quite high-functioning.

It is most commonly used to refer to Persistent Depressive Disorder (PDD) (formally known as Dysthymia). PDD is a mood disorder similar in symptoms to depression, but it is considered to be less severe and longer lasting.

The term high-functioning depression is often linked to PDD, but it really is just a blanket term that sheds light on the fact that one can be a productive member of society with day-to-day success, but still suffer from depression.


Why It’s Important to Talk About High-Functioning Depression:

Be honest; when you think of depression what do you think of? If you’re like most people, you think of the person who physically cannot get out of bed. Who cries all day and cannot participate in the things they used to love.

This is the reality for some people, but not all depression manifests itself in such a way.

It is important, therefore, to talk about high-functioning depression so that people who are suffering know that they are not alone and that there are resources out there for them to get help. According to one article I read, more than one-half of the women studied, cited denial as a barrier to treatment.

We can all help with that. We can make sure everyone knows that just because you are going through the motions and even succeeding in various aspects of your life does not mean that you ‘can’t be depressed’. If you are feeling unhappy or unwell don’t not seek treatment just because you are otherwise successful.


High-Functioning Depression & Young Professionals:

As I said at the beginning of this post, what shocked me most this past week is the expression of incredulity that such “successes” as Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain could have been struggling with mental health issues (I do not presume to know, nor should anyone, what their personal diagnoses or specific challenges were). Depression is on the rise across North America, but high-functioning depression is terrifyingly prevalent among young professionals.

A recent survey carried by the Junior Lawyers Division (JLD) as part of their Resilience and Wellbeing Report, found that over 90% of young lawyers have felt under too much emotional or mental pressure. This pressure has lead to a steady increase in lawyers self-disclosing as suffering from depression.

According to another study, the rate of depression among lawyers (ie. people who generally would be perceived as ‘being successful and having it together’) is three times as high as the general population of the US.

And it’s not just the law. Women in professional fields are reflecting higher levels of anxiety, depression and emotional distress across the board. This is clearly something we need to talk more about.


Why The F*ck I Care So Much About This Topic:

People are inherently curious and I know many of you are therefore wondering why I care so much about this topic. I care so much for a number of reasons:

(1) I have multiple people in my life who suffer from high-functioning depression. I have seen firsthand the toll it takes on the individual suffering and on their loved ones. I know what it’s like loving someone who is suffering when the rest of the world thinks they are doing absolutely wonderful. It is isolating, it is lonely, and it is hard.

I also had a boyfriend whose ex-girlfriend took her own life when he & I were out one night. She too appeared ‘fine’ to many people. I never had the privilege of knowing her, but in the aftermath of her passing I saw how deeply she was loved. I saw the impact of her death on the man I loved. Having lived through all of this, mental health awareness and ending stigma became something very close to my heart.

(2) One of my passions is inspiring women. As you know if you are a reader of LegalLee Blonde, this is primarily a wear-to-work fashion blog, but at it’s heart I created it because I want to inspire and encourage other working women, from what to wear to work, to where to travel, to having confidence in their amazing selves. That means talking about issues that face working women; and that includes high-functioning depression.

(3) I struggle with my mental health as well. I have never been diagnosed with depression or other mental illness, but I do see a therapist (best investment you can make in yourself in my opinion) and plan on working with her to make sure I receive any/all mental health support that I need moving forward.


What You Can Do Now:

Keep this conversation going. #EndTheStigma around high-functioning depression (and depression, anxiety and every other mental illness for that matter).

Don’t just assume that the colleague or friend that is getting their work done and meeting their obligations must be without mental health challenges. If you realize that someone is less involved in things than they used to be, or you aren’t seeing them as often, you reach out. You show them love and support.

It can be incredibly hard for anyone with any mental illness to “ask for help” but for someone with high-functioning depression it can be even more so. People suffering with high-functioning depression are all too easily able to lie to themselves about the darkness or sadness they feel telling themselves: “I can’t be depressed I, *insert successful accomplishment here* (… just got a promotion, … am doing amazingly well at work, …take care of my partner and kids and still find time to go the gym, etc.)


What To Do If You Think You May Have High-Functioning Depression:

Seek help. Seek help. Seek Help. It is too easy to talk yourself out of it; but you deserve to feel your best and if a doctor can help with that, then it’s worth it. According to the World Health Organization, only 2 in every 5 people experiencing a mood, anxiety or substance use disorder seek assistance in the year of the onset of the disorder. Don’t wait to reach out. You deserve all the best.

I recently discovered that there is a website entitled Lawyers with Depression. If you’re a lawyer you absolutely should be checking this website out. Even if you are not a lawyer, the website has some really interesting content relevant to any working woman.

Reading Material & Further Resources:

Lawyers with Depression website
Article from the WHO on Gender & Mental Health
Article from the UK Metro on high-functioning depression

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health: In the USA, The Suicide Prevention Lifeline has 24/7, free & confidential support for people in distress, prevention, & crisis resources: 1-800-273-8255. In Canada, visit the website for a list of the phone numbers for local crisis centres you can call.

linking up with: hello monday //

4 comments so far.

4 responses to “Real Talk: Why We Need to Talk About High-Functioning Depression”

  1. Shauna says:

    LOVE this real and honest post. It’s so heartbreaking that all of this keeps happening. Thank you for sharing XO


  2. Thank you for this. I previously suffered from this and it was awful. I was so functioning no one knew and admitting it was the hardest part. But now I know how to care for myself and check in and it is such a better life! I am a lawyer too and I will have to check out that blog, thanks!

    • Lee says:

      I am so glad the post resonated with you, and I am so glad you have reached out when you needed help and are doing well now! Definitely check the website out, I found a lot of really interesting content.

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