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Discriminating against mental health challenges when a person is high functioning

As a Mental Health practitioner and trainer, the impact of poor mental wellbeing on a person’s ability to function is of prime focus. But what does society and employers consider this to look like in reality? Some may consider that this means difficulties and struggles for an individual with certain areas of their life. Others think that it means individuals suffer greatly or cannot function in society. Both can be true, but in fact, a large portion of individuals with poor mental health are seemingly able to ‘function well’ with little obvious negative impact. This is a common in the workplace, albeit very often hidden.

An individual can be really struggling while going through the motions of the day. Acting fine and appearing emotionally stable is at best a short term coping strategy. A generally accepted lifestyle where a person wakes up every day, looks presentable, takes care of stuff that needs to be taken care of, eats and goes to sleep can be done regardless of how you feel inside up to a point. To say it is difficult is an understatement, but it is not impossible.

High functioning individuals with poor mental wellbeing are likely to ‘look and act ok’ and therefore can be discriminated against by an easy disregard in terms of support and awareness. Individuals for example may not be taken seriously when they reach out and ask for help or experience a situation where it becomes more apparent that they are not coping. An individual may not experience being understood or they may be made to feel invalidated when they express difficult thoughts or feelings. Hidden or unsupported, the risk of worsening mental health symptoms, physical symptoms and all other associated negative impacts are likely to accumulate over time.

High-functioning people don’t continue on regardless because they want to fool others, they do it because they want to produce and be a part of society. The effort to; overcome symptoms, be ‘strong ‘, cope, not being a burden or failure and fit in with expectations can be enormous. The impact of ineffective support and understanding escalates the accumulative downward spiralling of mental ill health on the individual.

It can be extremely hard work for an individual to sustain ‘normality’, terrified of admitting poor mental health, and when they finally do and can be met with rejection, little understanding or empathy from employers or mental health professionals. So, when that employee who ‘always is ok’, acts of character, asks for help or admits to them self and to someone else their struggles, it has taken a lot of bravery.

If you are that person trying to cope, you are entitled to get support and agree on reasonable adjustments at work to accommodate your mental health challenges. The best advice is to trust you know yourself so much more than anybody else. Nobody has the right to undermine your difficulties in the workplace or when reaching out for professional assistance. If they do, it’s their issue. Keep looking for the person who listens to you and takes your feelings into account. There are many organisations you can guide you. Don’t feel demoralised or flawed. Employers have responsibilities and options to support you that do not have to be disruptive or costly, especially when conversations are early.

And if you are an work employer or professional in mental health I encourage you to take focused action to continue your work to open up awareness and conversations around this topic of poor mental health challenges for high functioning individuals in order to reduce stigmatisation and discrimination. Support and understanding is key which can reduce the wide reaching and sometimes devastating negative impacts of poor mental health on all levels. Creative, honest and ongoing mental health awareness and support in the workplace improves wellbeing, productivity and personal safety.

Contact Positive Energy Being to continue the conversation and improve on your commitment. Booking or more information:

  • 1-1 sessions (face to face or skype)
  • Workplace Mental Health awareness sessions an courses
  • Mental Health First Aid training course
  • Connect 5 wellbeing course – frontline wellbeing support
  • Self care and resilience training
  • Mindfulness courses


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