High Functioning

Michele Theil discusses the term ‘high-functioning’ in relation to mental illness, and what it means for those suffering.

I hear the same things constantly; you’re so confident, you’re so outgoing, you’re so happy. I’m not trying to boast and, of course, on the surface, those seem like compliments. But, they’re often coupled with statements like: you have a mental illness? How can you have anxiety and depression? It’s not possible!

All of these statements drip with condescension and incredulity. What people don’t often understand is that my confidence and outgoing personality is actually a façade, a symptom of my mental illness. I suffer from a ‘high-functioning mental illness’, which essentially means that my internal struggle is rarely portrayed on the outside.

Many people suffer from similar strands of mental illnesses and are often not regarded as ‘true’ sufferers of mental illness. These are people are considered privileged, due to them being able to ‘pass’ among those that luckily do not suffer from a mental illness. As they are not seen to be struggling in the public sphere, they often don’t have the same level of access to mental health support, sympathy and understanding from professionals and people alike. People don’t offer me, or people like me, the same kind of consideration they would to someone who is visibly suffering from an illness – whether it be physical or mental. A broken leg is accommodated for and believed because of the empirical evidence that is presented. Depression, anxiety and other such illnesses don’t have the same luxury. This has always been a problem; the intangible entity that is mental illness. That is why it has been so important to have discussions about mental illness and to firmly come to grips with it as a physical detriment that occurs within your mind. When you see someone that is visibly upset or curled up in a ball, physically unable to do something, it is easy to reconcile such an image with the idea that they have a mental health issue. This is unsurprising. But, if a person isn’t visibly upset, it doesn’t mean they’re not suffering.

Be sympathetic. Not everyone copes or acts the same way – the world would be boring otherwise.

Mental illnesses, of all types, is stereotyped and stigmatised intensely. People expect you to always have a dark cloud over your head if you suffer from depression or to be a constant bundle of nerves if you suffer from anxiety. This is often not the case, actually. People have many different ways of coping with their personal struggles – I write an article or extensively research the most inane topic for example. These are, in fact, just another symptom and people need to start to have more of an understanding of something that they can’t physically see.

Be sympathetic. Not everyone copes or acts the same way – the world would be boring otherwise.

By Michele Theil

Michele Theil is a freelance journalist based in London, specialising in investigative journalism and pieces relating to the LGBT+ community, women, race and culture – and their intersections. She is a bisexual woman of colour, and passionate about social justice, diversity, inclusion, writing, reading and swimming. Read her other work at micheletheil.com.

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