The implications of ‘well-functioning’ depression and our pandemic mental health crisis

The implications of 'well-functioning' depression and our pandemic mental health crisis
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By Stacy Torres

From midlife, I thought about the tolls of social mobility on myself and others who moved from the poor or working class to the professional class. I spent my life building a titanium outer shell, becoming strong and tough as poverty knocked me out of whack. Having mastered overcoming the force, I carried my resilience like a purple heart. I had to fight. And fight. And fight.

But I’m tired of running to stay put. At 42, I still spend a lot of time silencing the internal monologue that tells me I’m not good enough. In my current position as an Associate Professor of Sociology, work and productivity remain intertwined with my identity and self-worth. Rejections can feel personally crushing. I often reflected on my failures, I felt like an impostor. Being tough on myself helped me climb, but the damaging perfectionism is now yielding diminishing returns.

The higher I got, the more pressure I felt to mask my vulnerability. Many in our classrooms, workplaces, and communities have been among the few or the only ones — a woman, a racial or ethnic minority, an immigrant, a poor person, or a myriad of underrepresented identities — with no choice but to go it alone. But surviving as a lone wolf can be detrimental. Exclusivity makes it difficult to seek help when you need it most.

Most of us don’t advertise our suffering. Given my educational and career qualifications, it may seem like nothing wrong to others. Some call such depression “high functioning” (although experts debate the usefulness of such labels). I call it hanging on by a thread.

My recent depression has caught up with pandemic fatigue, grief over my father’s death, and work and nursing burnout. I am not alone in my mental health struggles. According to the World Health Organization, depression and anxiety have increased by 25% worldwide during the pandemic.

During various periods of depression, I had suicidal thoughts, gained and lost weight, and drank too much. But I always showered, combed my hair, and got out of bed. Even as a suicidal college student, I kept straight. Small tasks require a lot of energy and courage. I go through fatigue, tears, apathy, self-doubt, distraction and despair, I want to work, exercise and eat broccoli. The worst is over now, but I’m not all right. In order not to fall to the lowest low, daily vigilance is required.

To protect my mental health, I don’t own a smartphone or use social media. Ten months ago, I stopped browsing academic Twitter, constantly bombarded with news of other people’s achievements that made me insecure. I attend a university bereavement group where we cry over dead parents and lately from being overwhelmed at work. Music lifts me from the darkest places. It’s hard not to feel like a failure on the days when I try everything and the dark cloud just doesn’t lift. But I push those painful thoughts to the edge of my cognitive plate, like some rancid vegetable, and I recognize small triumphs: I answer e-mails. letter, take a walk, sleep all night.

Over the past few years, I’ve re-evaluated every aspect of life, especially work. With growing discontent and resignations becoming the norm in higher education, I’m in good company.

When I recently updated my resume for an upcoming “evaluation,” a term that makes me feel like furniture, the gaps in my publications revealed the pandemic’s toll on my productivity. These “flaws” are a testament to my efforts to keep vulnerable family members alive and well, especially in the earliest waves of the pandemic. Due to my sister’s recession in 2020 had to be repeatedly hospitalized and admitted to a nursing home. Six months later, my father developed lung cancer again. He died in 2021.

It’s hard to admit to other achievers that you’re quietly broken, but I feel comfortable exposing my cracks. And I feel a growing responsibility to share my vulnerability with those who might benefit from it, perhaps struggling students or colleagues who need to know they are not alone in their suffering. In my lessons, I allow us space to express grief, anxiety, depression as the weary world spins.

It’s hard to claim any disease, especially one that hasn’t received pink ribbon status. My mother, sister and I were all in a mental hospital. When I’m tempted to keep quiet about my depression, I’m reminded of the iconic AIDS poster, Silence = Death. Disclosing your family’s mental illness always softens the confessions.

Breaking the silence is an important step, but unless the United States commits to a major investment in chronically underfunded mental health services, we will not save lives. As the pandemic has exacerbated the nation’s mental health crisis, a shortage of mental health providers, particularly people of color, and growing demand have limited access to treatment. One of the consolation prizes of this bleak year was a year of free grief counseling through my father’s Medicare nursing benefits. His nursing agency assigned me a weekly counselor, saving me the soul-sucking agony of searching for directories, calling, and retreating.

We also need to address the various structural barriers that limit trust and access to mental health care, particularly for racial and ethnic minorities who suffer from racism and who have experienced disproportionate deaths and economic losses from the pandemic. Ensuring adequate funding for mental health would support communities of color who have limited access to care due to affordability, stigma, mistrust of the medical system, and a lack of culturally competent services.

In addition to increasing access to resources, the government should also ensure equal coverage of mental health care and increase insurance reimbursement rates for behavioral health services. Workplaces also need to realize that providing access to short-term counseling, which I received through my employer, supports workers and businesses – and consider making these services permanent, even after the urgency created by the pandemic has subsided.

As I deal with the personal wreckage of the pandemic, I don’t expect to put the pieces back together in the same way. I thought about this gap year as Kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing cracked pottery with gold enamel. The beauty lies in its history, its fracture. If only dust remains, we have nothing to fix. I am grateful for the shards I still have and the hope I keep alive with so much support that I can make them whole and beautiful again.

If you are thinking about suicide, call or text 988 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or go to for a list of additional resources.

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