The Real-World Effects of Milder Mental Health Conditions
When you think about mental illness, you may have certain preconceptions in mind. One common idea is that all affected people have severe symptoms and a low ability to function. But this is not always the case. Some people have relatively mild symptoms of a serious illness like major depression. Others are affected by conditions that are generally less severe in all forms. You may sometimes hear milder problems referred to as high-functioning mental illness.
But make no mistake, high-functioning mental illness can still have a big impact on your overall well-being. In fact, some of its effects may leave you feeling just as distressed as people with more obvious problems. This means that you should seek treatment for all significant mental health issues. That is true even if the outside world has no idea that you are affected.
What Is High-Functioning Mental Illness
What is a high-functioning mental illness? And how do experts define this type of mental health problem? To begin with, this term does not actually refer to any specific mental health issue. In addition, it has no accepted definition of its own.
Instead, high-functioning mental illness is an unofficial term of convenience. It can be used to describe mental health conditions that do not seriously impair your normal function. Experts group these kinds of conditions into a general category called any mental illness, or AMI. This category also includes all other forms of mental illness, from the mildest to the most severe. Such conditions may be:
- Milder versions of conditions classified as serious mental illnesses, or SMIs
- Conditions that typically do not result in an SMI
- Full-blown, serious mental illnesses
Roughly 51.5 million American adults have an illness that falls into one of these three sub-categories. Included in that figure are all of the slightly more than 13 million adults with a serious mental illness. This means that a large majority of all affected people have a less severe condition. Many of these people may show no outward signs of their inner struggles. For this reason, they fit the loose, unofficial definition of high-functioning mental illness.
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Common Types of High-Function Mental Illness
Milder Versions of Serious Mental Illnesses
Before discussing common types of high-function mental illness, it helps to consider how doctors diagnose mental health problems. All mental illnesses have their own diagnostic criteria. In other words, you can only be diagnosed if you have certain kinds of symptoms. The exact symptoms that must be present depend on the illness in question.
When making a diagnosis, doctors also look at the number of symptoms present. Some people diagnosed with a given illness will have more symptoms than others. In addition, doctors consider symptom intensity. Some people have mild symptoms, while others have moderate or severe symptoms.
All of these factors have an impact on how well you can function. Mental health experts review each of them and then determine if, overall, your illness qualifies as mild, moderate or severe.
A mild illness:
- Involves fewer symptoms
- Only affects your daily function in relatively minor ways
A moderate illness:
- Involves a larger number of symptoms
- Makes it harder for you to function in more significant ways
A severe illness:
- Involves even more symptoms
- Greatly impairs your ability to function
Any mental illness can take a mild, moderate or severe form. This means that, in certain circumstances, any illness can be classified as high-functioning.
Illnesses That Are Typically Mild
Some mental illnesses are relatively mild in all affected people. Perhaps the best example of this types of illness is persistent depressive disorder, or PDD. Like major depression, PDD is a form of depression. However, while major depression is often severe, PDD typically has mild or moderate effects. People with persistent depressive disorder feel notably down most of the time. Adults with disorder feel this way for a minimum of two years.
Another common example of this type of illness is specific phobia. People with this disorder have a strong, irrational fear of things such as certain:
They feel fine and function well unless they encounter the particular source of their phobia. For this reason, you may have no idea that they are affected.
Symptoms of High-Functioning Mental Illness
All of this means one thing. When it comes to the symptoms of high-functioning mental illness, what matters most is not the specific type of symptom. Instead, what matters is the intensity and/or frequency of that symptom. Mild symptoms of any illness will usually leave you quite capable of functioning day-to-day. And if you have an illness like specific phobia, you will only have problems in limited situations.
Challenges of High-Functioning Mental Illness
But to be clear, milder mental illnesses still have a notable impact on your health and well-being. And for millions of Americans, the challenges of high-functioning mental illness are an everyday fact of life. An example will help illustrate this point.
Compared to people with major depression, people with PDD have relatively mild depression symptoms. However, for years at a time, they spend most days feeling somewhat down or sad. In addition, they have to cope with other common effects of PDD, including:
- Sleep problems
- Low energy
- A poor ability to concentrate
- Lack of self-esteem
- A recurring sense of hopelessness
What is more, most people with the disorder have at least one bout of major depression.
Just as important are the effects of the mild versions of potentially severe mental illnesses. Panic disorder provides a good example. All people with this disorder experience multiple panic attacks that include symptoms such as:
- Intense fear
- A rapid or pounding heartbeat
- Chest tightness or pain
- Heavy sweating
- A choking sensation
People with mild panic disorder typically have fewer attacks. Their attacks may also last for shorter amounts of time or have a reduced effect. Nevertheless, they still experience distressing bouts of panic. They also must live with the knowledge that another attack can occur at any time.
Treating High-Functioning Symptoms Successfully
The goal of all mental health treatment is to reduce the impact of your illness as much as possible. For example, if you have severe symptoms, doctors take steps to reduce them to mild or moderate levels. The same principle applies to people with high-functioning mental illness. Therefore, treating high-functioning symptoms successfully means limiting their relatively mild effects. The specific steps required to achieve this goal depend on the nature of your illness. Common treatments for all mental illnesses include:
- A combination of therapy and medication
Your doctor will help determine which options will work best in your particular situation.
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Low Function and the Stigma of Mental Health
For many people, the classic example of mental illness is a severe condition that heavily limits your day-to-day function. This common frame of reference helps explain the stigma still often associated with mental health problems. But in reality, most mental illnesses are not severe. Instead, they are mild or moderate. This does not mean that they do not negatively affect your well-being. It also does not mean that they do not require prompt and effective treatment.
It is also crucial to note that even severe mental illnesses are treatable. With an effective care plan, most people can significantly reduce the impact of their symptoms. As a result, they can make important gains in their function and sense of wellness.
Lasting Recovery From Mental Illness Through Treatment at Emerald Isle
High-functioning mental illness is not an official diagnosis. Instead, it is a term that loosely refers to the effects of certain mental health issues. Any illness can be considered high-functioning if it only leads to limited day-to-day impairment. That includes milder forms of even the most serious mental health issues. It also includes illnesses that rarely occur in a severe form.
It can be easy to underestimate the effects of high-functioning mental illness. This is true, in part, because affected people may not have obvious problems. In addition, many people have inaccurate ideas of the impact of mental illness. They assume that most problems are severe, when this is actually not the case. Such preconceptions are not only mistaken. They can also decrease the odds that high-functioning illnesses are seen as “real” problems.
But in actuality, people in the high-function category still have a diagnosable illness. By definition, this means that they suffer from significant mental health issues. Such issues may not be readily apparent. Nevertheless, their negative effects are felt, often daily, by those affected.
At Emerald Isle Recovery, lasting recovery from mental illness is a top priority. That is true for people heavily impacted by their illnesses. It is also true for everyone who has a high-functioning condition. In all cases, we provide recovery options suitable for your situation. For people who retain most of their daily function, the most common choice is outpatient care. Whatever works best for you, rest assured that your recovery plan will be full customized and individual to you. For more information on how we treat high-functioning mental illness, call us today.
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- National Institute on Mental Health: Mental Illness
- National Institute for Health and Care Excellence: Common Mental Health Problems – Identification and Pathways to Care
- American Academy of Family Physicians: Persistent Depressive Disorder (PDD)
- National Institute of Mental Health: Specific Phobia
- American Academy of Family Physicians: Panic Disorder