High-functioning depression: what is it and the symptoms to look out for

Trigger warning: suicide.

You might remember hearing that the former Miss USA, Cheslie Kryst, died by suicide in January earlier this year after struggling with high-functioning depression. And now, the 30-year-old’s mother and step-father have joined the ladies of Red Table Talk, hosted by Jada Pinkett Smith, to discuss about her daughter’s life and legacy, and speak out about her battle with the mental health illness.

During their discussion, April shared that although Cheslie had an outwardly happy and bubbly personality, and though she did know that her daughter was battling depression, due to the nature of high-functioning depression, she wasn’t fully aware of just how badly she was suffering. 

Speaking about the signs and symptoms that might have indicated her daughter was struggling, Simpkins said she wasn’t aware how severe her daughter’s depression had become: “I think what shocked so many people is when you see her on television, when you see her on Instagram, TikTok, she’s smiling, she’s bubbly, and that was Cheslie. But Cheslie was also battling depression, which she hid,” Simpkins explained.

And Jada described the beauty queen as someone who “excelled in school” and had a “joyful” energy about her. 

And that’s the thing about high-functioning depression, it doesn’t fit into that picture many of us have painted in our minds about what the mental health illness looks like. Perhaps, for you, it looks like someone who is unable to get out of bed, or who becomes a social recluse, maybe it’s someone who ends up giving up their job or having to go part-time. However it looks, psychotherapist Lizandra Leigertwood explains that high-functioning depression “looks different to the idea of what we think of as depression”.

The founder of New Frame Counselling & Psychotherapy adds: “The depression that we know and are able to recognise more looks like feeling and being unmotivated, having a consistently low mood, loss of appetite, apathy. When someone is noticeably down we can associate this to signs of depression. We might think of depression as someone who is unable to get out of bed and withdraws from life experiences.”

So, the question is, what is high-functioning depression, how do we spot it and what should we do if we think we, or someone we know, is suffering with it?

What is high-functioning depression?

“When a person is [suffering with] high-functioning depression, on the outside it can seem that everything is fine. They are able to continue day to day tasks, they still get up everyday and go to work, they can be social and meet up with friends. They can smile and laugh and seem completely fine,” Lizandra tells GLAMOUR. 

“They can appear motivated because they busy themselves and keep active, they might even still be working out and heading to the gym.”

However, she warns that the danger with high-functioning depression is that people struggling with are often wearing “a mask”: “They present as though everything is okay, but inside they are facing an internal battle. They can struggle with low self worth, possible poor body image, feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness. 

“The people who are more prone to this may be those who have experienced childhood trauma or depression is prevalent within their family history. They tend to be high achievers and so over functioning feels very natural to them. Often they are people pleasers or struggle with perfectionism and are very highly critical of themselves.”