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Disclaimer: In the name of full transparency, I am not a doctor or therapist, I am just a fellow bipolar sufferer sharing my experiences in the hope they may help you. Please be aware that this blog post contains affiliate links and any purchases made through such links will result in a small commission for me (at no extra cost for you). At the end of each post, I will be recommending through links the books and other products I personally use to connect with my authentic self.

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Why We Should Stop Using The Term “High Functioning” In The Mental Health Community.

I have never felt the need to start a campaign, but I do on this issue. In the mental health community, the term “High Functioning” is being used to describe a set of people with a mental illness who have better-coping skills in some situations than others who suffer from the same illness. My campaign is to remove the term “High Functioning” from the language of the mental health community.

In my own case someone could apply the term “High Functioning” to me today, but until 10 years ago it would not have applied to my life at all as I could not function at all. Does that mean I no longer have bipolar 1 disorder? No, it means I have worked my ass off learning to manage my illness. Everyone who has learned to manage their mental illness should get a medal not a label that sets them apart.

What caused me to start this campaign?

In a medical file, a mental health professional wrote – he suffers from “high functioning” depression. Where they should have written – he suffers from dysthymia.

The use of the term, “High Functioning” has caused an individual no end of grief. The inability to qualify for any medical benefits or health insurance payments being the most devastating as these entities equate “High Functioning” as not having depression at all.

And of course, the mental health professional who wrote that statement bears no responsibility, stating: “It is a commonly used term within the mental health community.”

Why should this concern anyone?

The term “High Functioning” is not in any manual or diagnostic tool related to mental illnesses. Using a term that has no basis in any manual or diagnostic tool means other agencies can define the term as they see fit.

Origins Of The Term “High Functioning.”  

My research is showing the term “High Functioning” originally comes from either the area of mental disability or autism. I cannot be sure of which area the term escaped into the mental health community.

 I have experience in the field of the mentally and physically disabled. That is where my education is, and I worked in that field. A mental disability affects the persons intellectual capacity. The term “Higher Functioning” was used to describe the level of care a client required.

In one of the places I worked, we had two 30-year-old clients, one with an intellectual capacity of a teenager, the other client that had the intellectual capacity of a two-year-old  The client with the capacity of a teenager was “Higher Functioning” than the other client and needed less care as they could do certain tasks themselves, like dress themselves and eat unaided.

In the situation of mental disability, the term ‘higher functioning’ fits because it relates to level of care.

 I have no experience with Autism other than the understanding autism is a developmental condition. The term “High Functioning” seems to differentiate the level of social skills a person with autism displays.

This was the first use of the exact term “High Functioning” instead of the term “Higher Functioning” that is used in the field of mental disability.

How did the term “High functioning” invade the mental health community?

The term “High Functioning” seems o be applied by mental health professionals to an individual. The reasons seem to vary but the most common is to “take the sting out of a diagnosis” or “because it sounds better ( I got this statement from the professional who wrote the term “High Functioning” in my friend’s file).

The fact that the mental health professionals are perpetuating this term is perplexing as its professionals that should know better than to transfer terminology between fields with different parameters

As individuals we then perpetuate the term “High Functioning” by applying the term to ourselves without thinking how that term sets us apart.

Terminology effectively used in one field is terminology improperly used in another if the basic parameters of the fields are not the same. The fields of mental disability and autism may be similar enough to allow the term “High Functioning” to apply to both. But there are no similarities between those fields and the field of mental illness.

The Danger of Using The Term “High Functioning” In Regard To Mental Illness.

  1. The term “High Functioning” has no meaning in the realm of mental illness. The term “High Functioning” has no place in the conversations about mental health or because it may “sound better” than an actual diagnosis.
  2. is not a diagnosis, but a judgment on a person. In the fields of mental disability, this judgment is on the level of care required for them by the caregivers, not how they live their lives. In the mental health community, it is a judgment on how we live our lives.
  3. Using The term “High Functioning” and writing it in a file may cause a person to not qualify for disability benefits or disability insurance when the person needs it because they are no longer “High Functioning”.
  4. The term “High Functioning” negates the fact that someone has “learned” the skills to cope in some situations. Because they are labeled “High Functioning” leads people to believe they no longer have a mental illness. In reality, all they have done is learn to cope a little better some of the time and still suffer from the illness in all areas.
  5. divides us within the mental health community. Because a person is said to be “High Functioning” this leads others with the shared illness to think that the “High Functioning” person is not as affected by the illness the same as they are.
  6. “High Functioning” adds to the stigma put on everyone who suffers from a mental illness. Because one is able to cope a little better and gets the label “High Functioning” the outside world, which has no concept of the labels meaning, has another excuse to use against those who are not functioning as well with the same mental illness.


If we do not allow ourselves to be labeled as “High Functioning” or label ourselves in that way, it would not take long for that term to disappear from the language of mental health conversations.

The term “High Functioning” has no place in the conversations about mental health as the term has no meaning in the field of mental illness.

It is true that all fields have their jargon and agreed-upon terminology, but in most cases, they also have the backbone to explain the jargon and terminology to outside agencies. The mental health community seems to be sorely lacking in this capacity. 

In 2017, I wrote a post entitled “Is Bipolar Like A Cold” outlining how the symptoms of a cold do not affect me a deeply as my girl friend. No medical professional would dare say I had a “High Functioning” cold even though I am not affected by the symptoms as deeply as my girlfriend. A cold is a cold as a mental illness is a mental illness. There are no varying degrees in the diagnosis. The only variation is in the way the symptoms affect the individual.

It is unfortunate “High Functioning” was allowed to pervade the mental health industry as it is divisive, hurtful to all who have mental illness and adds to the stigma that already follows those of us with a mental illness. Let us use stop using the term “High Functioning” and start using defined diagnosis only in speech and writing.

Please share post with as many people as possible so we may kill the term “High Functioning” and remove it from our community.

As we conclude this week’s blog post always remember our battle with bipolar disorder is with and in our minds. Our battle is with our illness not with other people, places, situations or other external things.  Our goal is to develop the self-discipline to take control of our emotions, minds and lives.

The great inspirational speaker, Jim Rohn, said:” Work harder on yourself than anything else.”

I say,” Work hard on yourself and everything else falls into place like magic.”

Keep to the path, the hard one. The easy one does not go anywhere.

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Many other people blog on bipolar and related subjects. Mental wellness is all about knowledge and learning about ourselves. The more informed we are the easier our struggles may be. Each week I attach a blog written by someone else that I found interesting that may inform you as well.  This is another author’s work I am just attaching their blog for you.  I hope you enjoy this week’s blog created by Alexa Ceza