Does a ‘High-Functioning’ Person Need Help?

The question is precisely why the term "high functioning" is broadly unhelpful. Plenty of "successful" people struggle with addiction and mental health conditions, and they deserve care

March 23, 2023
Theater masks

The very old stereotype of addiction declared that it usually condemned people to prison, institutions or the streets, having lost it all. That addiction didn’t happen to “normal” people in society. We now understand, of course, that plenty of people in active addiction have degrees, families, jobs — the outward markers of “success.”

How many is “plenty”? A 2022 survey cited by the CDC revealed that 70% of adults with a substance use disorder are employed. The “high-functioning” person with an addiction or mental health disorder is not some outlier. They are the norm.

Still, there are some people who appear to be so happy, healthy and put-together that it can be hard to believe they are battling addiction or mental health conditions. Living your own life with compassion and kindness makes it easier to consider that someone else may be going through much more than they show. The exclamation “You don’t know my life!” may be meme’d to death, but only because there’s a kernel of truth in it.

Or perhaps you or a loved one is the “high-functioning” person despite addiction or mental health issues — one of the 70%. Things look good on paper. Maybe you work hard to make sure of that. But do they feel good inside? If not, there’s care and support available to you too.

What Is a ‘High-Functioning’ Person?

We put the term “high functioning” in quotes for a few reasons. It’s outdated and not particularly meaningful in today’s world, for one, and it implies that some people are “better” at life with addiction, mental illness or a disability than others.

And there’s this. A “high-functioning” person experiencing addiction or mental health challenges presents few symptoms to those around them. So it becomes all too easy to disregard their needs because they appear not to have any sort of illness at all. But we don’t know their lives.

You may have a healthy response to stress, a good attitude, sound finances, plenty of friends and a positive home life. You may have an outwardly invisible or medically mild substance use or mental health disorder.

But just because some things are “functioning” as they supposedly should, please don’t be discouraged from seeking help if you feel your substance use or mental health are dragging on you. You know yourself best, and no matter what you’re dealing with, someone is always available to support you.

My Issues Are Mild or Outwardly Invisible. How Can I Benefit From Help?

Someone with the appearance of a less severe substance use or mental health condition can still benefit from support in various ways:

  • Avoiding future setbacks
  • Learning how to ask for help and receive it
  • Alleviating pain others don’t see in order to strive for more consistent happiness
  • Having a safe space to express the challenges you may not share with others
  • Avoiding more severe health issues down the road

If you do not seek help, it may be possible to continue managing your symptoms without much external support, for now. But why do that, if you’re struggling? There’s no harm in looking into avenues of support so that you can at least get feedback and guidance to help you better yourself.

Sometimes, when others consider you “high-functioning,” there’s pressure to keep up appearances to avoid making your loved ones worry. But getting the help you may need can make you stronger when facing current and future challenges.

It’s also helpful to remember that you are human too. No matter how many people may depend on you, taking care of your needs is a vital part of nurturing the generosity you have to offer.

What Support Is There for Someone Like Me?

There’s plenty of support for people with substance use or mental health issues all along the spectrum of severity. What matters most is that you are open to receiving it.

Depending on your needs, you may be able to support your recovery with self-help or self-care efforts. Individual and group therapy can provide additional support for your healing.

Finding ways to identify, stay ahead of and treat your symptoms will make it easier to cope with your challenges. Some tools and resources include:

Regardless of how you choose to prioritize your needs, it is helpful to incorporate consistent and intentional practices into your routine; that’s true for anyone. Depending on where you are in your situation and what feels best, it is entirely up to you to decide the best approach for your healing.

There are more direct and intensive resources to support your mental health, such as various therapies and other clinical resources. If you think you have substance use issues, especially, you should consult a medical professional before stopping use, as withdrawal can make people very sick.

Alongside clinical resources, simpler techniques such as breathwork and journaling can be practiced wherever you feel most comfortable.

It’s also important to maintain habits and practices that promote your physical health, such as eating a well-balanced diet and getting an ideal amount of sleep each night. Being mindful of your wellness will make it much easier to maintain a positive perspective and cope with challenges from a position of strength.

Be Proactive

Unfortunately, as we’ve discussed, a “high-functioning” person may not be given the appropriate level of care and support if they don’t articulate their difficulties clearly. You may have to be proactive about your needs and candid about your challenges.

If you’re reading this article, there’s a chance you’re feeling like something, somehow, needs to change. It may not be overwhelming, but it’s distressing. Hopefully you feel confident in your intuition now and can proceed with the necessary steps to get whatever help you need to live unburdened.

More Relaunch

Don Fertman

Subs & Drugs & Rock & Roll, Part 1: With a Little Help From My Friends

Don Fertman, longtime Subway exec, writes about a pivotal moment in his 40 years of sobriety: what happened after he went public about his recovery on "Undercover Boss."

Laptop near a Christmas tree

Here's How To Make the Office Holiday Party Recovery-Friendly

Four ways to make your holiday party more inviting to employees who are in recovery, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.

Man and woman at break room table with coffee

How Can I Be a Sober Ally in the Workplace?

You're not in addiction recovery, but you want to show up for people who are. Great! Here's what that looks like at the office.

Woman and man with coffee standing by the water cooler at work

Is Alcohol Big in Your Work Culture? Here's How To Sidestep — Or Talk About It

The "Mad Men" era may be over, but some workplaces can still be particularly challenging in recovery. Some pointers on putting your sobriety first.

Two women talking in a garden

Your Guide To Hanging Out and Making Friends in College — Sober

Doing college sans drugs and alcohol doesn't have to be a struggle. Some tips on making bonds that'll last and having a blast.

Men and women in a recovery-friendly workplace

The Benefits of a Recovery-Friendly Workplace

Also called a "recovery-ready workplace," it's a winning proposition for high-quality employers and employees alike.

Smiling sober female college student holding books

10 Top Colleges for Recovery — And Sober Adventure

Recovery residences, specialized counselors, sub-free tailgates and … sober study abroad?! The sober college experience today is better than ever. These universities are showing the way.

Two construction workers

What Is a Recovery-Friendly Workplace?

And how can I create one at my company? Here's why and how implementing a work-life recovery program pays off.

New Report

Close