Why you’re seeing the term ‘high-functioning’ all over social media

On TikTok, you’ll find millions of users who self-diagnose using the term “high functioning”: high-functioning anxiety, high-functioning depression, high-functioning autism.

The term “high functioning” is not actually clinical, but, in general, it refers to those who perform well at work and school. So, if someone has high-functioning depression, it means they are excelling at their job, despite poor mental health.

After the pandemic, when levels of depression and anxiety both increased, people became more aware that you can suffer from depression or anxiety and still excel in certain parts of your life, says Irina Gorelik, psychologist at Williamsburg Therapy Group.

“Post-Covid, there has been a much greater focus on mental health,” she says. “And people are much more aware of signs that might have been subtle in the past.”

While the idea of ​​a high-functioning depressed or anxious person isn’t new, our recent obsession with the term is. And experts say it could signal a shift in how we think mental health presents itself.

You “hide” your difficulties with high performance

Gorelik compares high-functioning tendencies to masking. A person will work very hard in the office in order to hide their poor mental health.

“You’re masking something that you’re having trouble performing with,” she says. “You’re able to maintain the basic aspects of your life without people noticing a significant change, but you put in a lot more mental effort to maintain that high performance.”

Saying that you are “high-performing” also indicates that you have economic value to society, explains John T. Maier, a psychotherapist in Cambridge, Massachusetts:

“When people say ‘high functioning,’ they’re not saying ‘I’m doing a great job raising my family’ or ‘I’m doing a great job going to church,'” he says. “It means ‘I’m doing a great job at work’.”

Historically, admitting that you have mental health issues may suggest that you are having trouble holding down a job or performing well in school. The growing use of this term shows that people are rethinking what depression or anxiety looks like.

“It implies that you are somehow different from someone else with that label,” he says.

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