Have you ever heard of the term “smiling depression”?
Also known as “hidden depression” or “high-functioning depression”, this is when someone who is clinically depressed tries to keep it a secret from others. These people are often cheerful, successful, and seemingly put-together. You would probably never even guess that there is something bothering them because of how well they conceal their mental illness and make you think their lives are perfectly happy and fine.
It’s terrifying to think that those closest to us might be suffering from depression without us even knowing about it, but a lot of patients often try to hide their condition from others. They don’t feel comfortable enough to show their usual symptoms of fatigue, loss of appetite, sleep disturbance, and feelings of hopelessness and try to convince everyone else that all is fine with them.
Is there someone you think might be secretly depressed? Look out for these 8 telltale signs that they might have hidden depression:
1. They feel emotions on a much deeper level
Someone who is secretly depressed will often feel things more intensely than usual because of how much they bottle up inside. This is especially telling when the person exhibiting all these things is usually cool, calm, and collected most of the time, but has suddenly become emotionally volatile. It’s easier for them to cry, get upset, or even have a full-fledged breakdown even when they’re normally not like this because they feel overwhelmed with the depths of all their emotions. They become more affectionate and loving towards others, but also more easily angered and saddened (Brownhill, et al., 2005).
2. They’ve become more philosophical and reflective
Another subtle sign of “smiling depression” is when a person suddenly wants to have deep but bleak conversations about life and philosophy. Someone who used to be so easy-going and lighthearted has now become cynical and pessimistic, perhaps because they’re internally struggling with a lot of dark thoughts they’re too afraid to share. They may adopt a more nihilistic point of view and become less positive and optimistic than you’re used to them being.
3. They’re obsessed with being the best
Depression often robs us of our ability to enjoy the simple pleasures of life, and hidden depression is no different. People who struggle with depression but try to conceal it will often throw themselves into their work or their art in order to find meaning in their life and make sense of their suffering. They work tirelessly and dedicate themselves to being the best painter, writer, musician, scholar, athlete, or whatever field it is they’re interested in because it’s the only way they can feel like they matter. By overworking themselves, they can feel some reprieve from their depression and distract themselves from all the negativity the feel (Abroms, 1981).
4. They have sudden mood swings
What most people don’t know is that depression isn’t always going to look like sadness. Sometimes depression manifests itself as anger, irritability, and sudden changes in mood. Because having depression makes it so hard for us to feel happy and enjoy the things we used to love, we tend to lash out and become emotionally unhinged. We snap at everyone over every little thing because we’ve lost our ability to keep our feelings in check. There’s just too much rage and desperation for us to suppress, so we let it explode and throw tantrums.
5. They’ve started abusing drugs/alcohol
While it’s normal for teenagers and young adults to partake in recreational drug use and occasional drinking, it starts to become a red flag for hidden depression when they stop doing it every once in a while and become dependent on it, making it a regular habit. In fact, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) found that approximately 1 in every 5 people who were depressed also had a substance use disorder. So if you notice this person is starting to show signs of addiction when there were none before, it could mean that they are secretly depressed.
6. They’re always out of it lately
One of the lesser-known symptoms of clinical depression is difficulty concentrating and remembering (APA, 2013). Those who suffer from it often have a hard time keeping their train of thought, can’t finish their sentences, and struggle with finishing tasks. Their grades or work performance might decline because they can’t focus or think straight anymore. They have trouble making up their minds, recalling recent events and information, and may even start to speak and move more sluggishly as a result.
7. They feel bad about asking for help
When someone is trying to conceal their depression from others (or maybe even themselves), they will often send subtle cries for help that they immediately take back. They tell you something’s wrong, but then say its “silly” or “unimportant” and they’ll “just deal with it on their own.” They try to talk to a guidance counselor or a psychologist, but talk themselves out of it at the very last minute. They apologize for asking for help, even when they’re struggling, and never want to burden anyone else with what they’re going through (Fisch & Nescher, 1986).
8. They always try to look/act happy
Finally, but perhaps most importantly, you can tell when someone is secretly depressed if it seems like they are constantly making an effort to look happy in front of you (Grohol, 2018). They are smiling and cheerful all the time and will usually deny that something is wrong, even when you know there is. And just when they start to open up to you about what’s hurting them, they will quickly change the topic or dismiss their problems with a smile. They won’t let others see them cry or be sad, so they make up excuses about why you can’t spend a lot of time with you. But sometimes, usually when they think no one else is looking, they will let the façade fall away and you just know that they’re not at all okay.
Not everyone who has depression will show the symptoms commonly associated with the condition. Because of the negative stigma surrounding mental illness, many patients often feel the need to keep their struggle a secret for fear that they will be judged, shamed, or mistreated for their depression. If you know someone who is secretly depressed, reach out to them. Refer them to a mental healthcare professional so they can get the help they need to get better. Offer your support and understanding. Pay attention to these signs and you just might save their life.
- Brownhill, Suzanne, et al. “‘Big build’: hidden depression in men.” Australian and New Zealand journal of psychiatry10 (2005): 921-931.
- Abroms, Gene M. “The diagnosis and treatment of hidden depression.” Psychiatric Quarterly4 (1981): 235-241.
- Fisch, Robert Z., and Gidon Nesher. “Masked depression: Help for the hidden misery.” Postgraduate medicine3 (1986): 165-169.
- Grohol, J. (2018). 6 Secret Signs of Hidden Depression. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 7, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/6-secret-signs-of-hidden-depression/