Understanding High-Functioning Depression among Managers

Woman with high-functioning depression

*Trigger Warning: This week’s post addresses suicide and depression.*

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

—Paul Lawrence Dunbar, “We Wear the Mask

Last week’s post about manager’s mental health resonated deeply with many TIE readers. Our analytics and the direct feedback I received suggest that this topic is critically important. Several managers privately indicated feeling “seen” and complimented TIE‘s effort to make the “invisible visible” about the unique difficulties administrators and managers face. Please know that the TIE team takes this feedback to heart and will determine more ways to bring this hidden topic to the forefront.

Hence, this week’s piece about the concept of high-functioning depression as a managerial concern and one for higher education to explore more intentionally.

My orientation into the concept of high-functioning depression came from a statement made by April Simpkins, the mother of former Miss USA Cheslie Kryst. Kryst tragically ended her life on January 30, not long after posting an inspirational Instagram message. In a public statement, Simpkins conveyed the following:

“While it may be hard to believe, it’s true. Cheslie led both a public and a private life. In her private life, she was dealing with high-functioning depression, which she hid from everyone—including me, her closest confidant—until very shortly before her death.”

Kryst’s death shocked the nation, again drawing attention to the suicide crisis within the United States. Yet, Simpkins’s insight into how she believes high-functioning depression manifested within her daughter appeared to resonate with scores of people online—including those who work as managers and leaders. The duality of projecting success publicly while suffering immeasurable grief privately is something that many leaders frequently whisper about within their trust networks (paywalled).

Much of the traditional managerial advice one receives, and operates in accordance with, is not sufficiently colocated in the realities of being human. As a result, telling managers to not “wear stress on one’s face,” to “always speak ascendingly,” and (the classic) to refer to difficulties as “challenges” can lead to the unhealthy suppression of emotions. As my former therapist shared with me, this suppression is a root cause of depression for leaders. In fact, this practice of suppression and projection among managers may be a persistent yet rarely discussed manifestation of high-functioning depression.

When performed with an ethic of care and concern, managerial leadership is punctuated with rewards and risks. Enjoying the work of guiding an organization and team members in advancing essential work is frequently paired with long days and nights, working weekends, and encroachments on one’s space, place, and time. Leadership often means learning not to internalize certain comments that are intended to be deeply personal and cutting. Over time, negotiating complex systems and people can weigh heavily on the hearts and spirits of leaders.

I am encouraged by some insights-to-action research emerging on managers’ mental health, yet more intentional work is needed. We can no longer ignore the direct correlation between inclusive workplace excellence and prioritizing a healthy workforce (paywalled), as guided by healthy managers.

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Header image is a detail of This is Harlem by Jacob Lawrence. Courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. © 2021 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. For more information, click here.