High Functioning Vs. Low Functioning: Bipolar Edition

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I was watching a video on Facebook in regard to autism in females. The video made a point in (briefly) discussing the negative traits of using the terms “high functioning” and “low functioning” in terms of describing a person with autism, specifically females. The creator of the video is a female who actually has autism and gave some interesting perspectives. I thought it was a topic that should be explored further with an expanded scope of who the terms high and low functioning affect.

First, we must define what high and low functioning is. High functioning can be described as performing at a more successful rate, usually in terms of mental, physical, emotional, or cognitive disorders. Like previously said, there is high functioning autism such as Asperger’s, or there is even high functioning alcoholism. Or even high functioning bipolar disorder. Low functioning is the opposite; those with mental disorders or impairments operate at a less successful rate compared to their peers with the same disorder.

Next, we must expand the scope on who high and low functioning definitions affect. Like previously stated, it can affect those with various folks on the autism spectrum, those with alcoholism or drug addiction, and those with bipolar disorder. This scope can stem out even further with other mood disorders such as depression, borderline personality disorder, anxiety, etc. It can stem into various other addictions such as smoking or gambling. The scope can stem out furthermore with other disabilities, both recognized by the Americans with Disabilities Act and otherwise.

What’s wrong with using the term “High Functioning”?

There are several things wrong with using the term “high functioning”. It brings out a multitude of issues such as masking and political correctness among other things.


Masking can be defined as putting on a mask, so to speak. To cover your true identity in terms of protecting one’s self, usually in terms of hiding a disease, disorder, illness, or ailment of some sort. A prime example of this is lying, denying, or hiding an illness or ailment such as bipolar disorder.

Most people care solely about themselves and how everything affects them as a person. When you or a loved one experiences something such as mental illness, it then affects you on a personal level because you have to then deal with the good, the bad, and the ugly. With bipolar disorder, there are different types, mainly bipolar one, and bipolar two. Two is less severe than one. Some of the symptoms of both bipolar one and two are rapid mood cycling, impulsivity, elated moods, severe depression, suicidal thoughts, addictive behavior, lack of control over emotions, etc.

When you think of work, what do you imagine as an ideal co-worker? I would imagine that they are dependable, accountable, loyal to the company, trustworthy, does their work, a team player; just your average Joe Schmo.

Now imagine having a co-worker with bipolar disorder. Chances are, this is already a reality for you and you would be none the wiser. This may surprise or even shock you. How could someone as irrational as a bipolar person be in a position to be my co-worker if they have all the qualities that an ideal co-worker could have? That is where masking comes into play.

I will guess and say 9 times out of 10, bipolar folks mask aka hide their true selves enough to “fit in” and “be normal” at work or in their social lives. This can often be perceived as high functioning because they are so seemingly performing at a higher rate than their bipolar counterparts who let’s say, don’t have many or any friends, or don’t have a job.

Masking is toxic because it benefits the receiver, but not the giver. The person who masks, such as someone with bipolar disorder, suffers a great deal because they must sacrifice who they are in order to keep a job, keep friends, not get into fights, to keep relationships, to stay connected with family, etc. Masking is toxic because it tends to start out small and gets larger in time. One might mask to their employer that they do not have a mental illness, but advocate on social media about bipolar rights and don’t mask around loved ones.

For me, this is how I used to be when I was a paralegal. My employer disrespected those with mental illness, including his own brother with schizophrenia. He and I bonded over our experiences with our schizophrenic relatives, but I stayed quiet when he made his negative remarks about the illnesses themselves. It wasn’t until my employer added me on social media that I realized I needed to be true to who I was and could no longer mask my identity. My employer suspended and then terminated me for lack of integrity in regard to my bipolar disorder. He said he would have never hired me if he had known I was bipolar.

Every time I had a job after that, I masked my bipolar disorder to the best of my abilities, but every time I do so, it takes a little piece of my heart out of me and sets it on fire. I am so torn between being who I really am and masking out of necessity for a job and some sort of income.

Besides the toxicity of masking, we must also assess…

Political Correctness

So let’s say, for an example, that since I have the less severe form of bipolar disorder, that I am “high functioning”. So that then puts the more severe, bipolar one folks into the “low functioning” category. First, let me just say that this assumption is inaccurate because there are many people who have bipolar one disorder who also have great careers, spouses, kids, etc. whereas other folks with bipolar two disorder are on unemployment or receive disability, and have virtually nothing.

Second of all, to give into the saying that one person functions higher or lower than another due to their ability or lack thereof is quite ableist. It is not like one person is trying harder than another to do what’s best for themselves. It also goes to show that masking is toxic. If one masks, they can appear more “high functioning” than their respective peers. Not to mention how offensive that is to those who would then be considered “low functioning.”

Then you must define what success truly is and for every bipolar person, success is going to look different. Having a career could mean success for you, having a successful romantic relationship or even a basic, healthy friendship could mean success for you. During a deep depression, success could mean getting out of bed in the morning, let alone performing personal hygiene or using the bathroom on your own. To say that one success is better than another is ableist. It is to say that they all need fixing, but one is more socially “normal” than the other, which should carry less repercussions than the one who struggles to get out of bed.

The truth of the matter is this: all successes are still successes in their own right. One should not be comparable to the other. Masking is toxic because it feeds into the ableist agenda that something entirely out of my control such as a mood disorder like bipolar disorder is somehow “wrong” or not “normal” which then assumes that I, as a human being, am broken or in need of fixing. Masking would/is the way of fixing it from an external point of view at a huge emotional sacrifice. Most people don’t comprehend this next concept, but there is


for bipolar disorder and many other mood or cognitive disorders or ailments. There are only medications that can or even cannot improve minimal symptoms of the disorder, depending on what your diagnosis is and if you struggle with multiple diagnoses, it can be even more difficult to master a pharmaceutical cocktail that can assist with even some of your ailments. There are also various coping mechanisms that may help or may not help depending on the year, month, day, moment, your cycle, your moods, your interests, etc. What may help you cope with your illness may not help others who are identical in your diagnoses and what may help you yesterday in coping may not help you today, or even tomorrow.

With all of that being said, we must be oh so careful with our rhetoric, with how we speak because our words matter. Actions may speak louder than words, but it is our words, if sharp enough, sting the longest and wound others deeply. So please. I ask you to consider the effect your words have on others, especially in terms of being ableist, or even using terms such as “high and low functioning”.

Much Love,


2 Comments Add yours

  1. fishrobber says:

    Masking is a way of dissociating myself from my illness, which is a part of me. I have always felt like I have a split personality: a “normal” person for work and school and acquaintances, and a bipolar person for myself, my family, and a few carefully-chosen friends. I got demoted from a good job due to my bipolar diagnosis and not being able to separate my “professional” life from my personal bipolar hell. I have also done everything possible to hide my diagnosis at work, and it hurts me to do so. That’s one reason why blogging is an outlet for me to talk about it.


    1. I can relate to that. I have lost plenty of jobs because I haven’t been able to separate my work self from my bipolar self. I think I have a post in here somewhere about compartmentalization of the mind as you describe as a split personality. It’s definitely great that you blog as an outlet. I find that the more outlets and coping mechanisms that I have, the less my bipolar “comes out” at work.


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