Hidden in the Shadows: High-Functioning Depression
For the majority of my life, I had no sense of who I was as a person. I had no conception of what I liked or why I did the things I did or why I felt the way I felt. For the longest time, my identity was composed of all the things I wasn’t — I was the person who wasn’t funny enough, wasn’t pretty enough, wasn’t extroverted or interesting or worthy enough. I just wasn’t enough.
Thoughts like these plagued me relentlessly from about the age of 10, the age when I first began to realize that laughing felt forced rather than natural. Every day was an experience of fear. Every second that passed felt like was I under a microscope, with everyone able to see me, flaw by flaw, down to the very core of my being. Though I didn’t know it at the time, I was struggling with Major Depressive Disorder, joining my parents, grandparents, and four aunts and uncles who were also diagnosed. In high school, I learned to brave the world with a smile as my mask and laughter as my perfume. Despite being a bit timid, I was well-liked and known as kind, reliable, and overachieving by students and teachers alike. My friends were vibrant, charming, and passionate. Extracurricular after extracurricular filled my time and preoccupied my thoughts. Though my life sounded perfect, it rang hollow. While I wore the titles of student leader, friend, and even role model to some, I felt like a compilation of personas rather than as a person.
Clinical depression is a condition generally characterized by a lowness in mood and a loss interests in activities, even activities found previously enjoyable by that person. While anxiety disorders actually have the highest prevalence in the United States today, a finding by the World Health Organization actually notes that clinical depression “carries the heaviest burden of disability among mental and behavioral disorders”.
With all this being said, however, it is important to note that depression doesn’t have just one “look”. In the media, we are often shown depictions of those with depression as very extreme — these individuals are the most isolated, the most emotional, and the most underperforming. These societal expectations result in a number of unfortunate consequences. For one, the idea that people with depression only look and act a certain way is reinforced. More importantly, however, people who don’t have the typical appearance of depression are invalidated, both by others and even by themselves.
The name for this “atypical” form of depression is regarded as high-functioning depression. Individuals with high-functioning depression, like myself, generally come off as over-achieving. These people can have excellent grades and dynamic social lives, so most don’t suspect a thing. Therein lies the danger. As the signs for this type of depression are either hidden or subtle, individuals with high-functioning depression tend to slip under the radar of mental health clinicians or loved ones unless the individual discloses his or her internal struggle. As a result, these individuals are the ones least likely to receive treatment. With this being said, I recommend that everyone attempt to provide as reliable of a support system to loved ones as possible — utilize active listening and practice non-judgment. Not only can these practices potentially help you detect someone struggling with depression, but it also increases the chances that the individual will see and seek support around them.
For most of my life, my depression was both my closest companion and a secret for which I felt the utmost shame. I couldn’t rectify the fact that I had such a wonderful support system and excellent grades while simultaneously feeling intense self-hatred and helplessness. The guilt that resulted from this juxtaposition for me resulted in my sinking into even deeper depression. To my friends, I was the least likely candidate for depression — bubbly, ambitious, and always smiling.
For most of my life, I hid behind the stereotypicality of depression. It wasn’t until my mother pushed me to realize how debilitating my depression had gotten that I agreed to seek help. Now a senior at UCLA, I consider myself a staunch and outspoken advocate of mental health. There are still many moments in which the all too familiar doubt and negative self-talk kicks in, There are moments when I would rather go to bed earlier than deal with the day any longer. But pain and fear have made me more prone to kindness and empathy.
More than anything, however, I have learned to find resources and hope to combat the helplessness that sometimes consumes me. I was lucky that I had someone like my mom that I could confide in. Unfortunately, not everyone struggling with mental illness is so fortunate. That is why it is extraordinarily important to know about resources in your community, whether for yourself or to recommend to others. Early on in my academic career at UCLA, I found Active Minds, both a national organization and committee within Student Wellness Commission dedicated to changing the conversation on mental health. Not only did I become more educated on a topic that personally affected me, but I gained a family.
While we might not all have mental illness, we all have mental health. I encourage everyone to be more acquainted with the resources we have on campus, whether it’s Counseling and Psychological Services, Active Minds, the Resilience Peer Network. You never know whose life you could be helping by being a bit more knowledge and kindness.
Mandy Mekhail is a 4th year undergraduate Psychology major and Disability Studies minor at UCLA. She currently serves as the Assistant Commissioner of the Student Wellness Commission, a student organization dedicated to promoting holistic health and wellness in the UCLA community.
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