Just Listen: What is high-functioning depression?

Juliette Sivertsen, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Wed, 6 Nov 2019, 1:32PM

Just Listen: What is high-functioning depression?

Juliette Sivertsen, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Wed, 6 Nov 2019, 1:32PM

Just Listen is a seven-part mental health podcast series, exploring how to support a person in serious and ongoing mental distress. Six New Zealanders and their support people share their mental health journey and challenges with journalist and host Juliette Sivertsen. Made with support from the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand, and Like Minds, Like Mine.

Philip McDonald couldn't understand how he could manage a high-pressure career in the finance industry, but fall apart at home.

He struggled to comprehend why he wanted to hide under the covers at home with the curtains drawn, and panicked at the idea of going out with friends.

"I struggled to rationalise it," McDonald explains. "I think work became habitual and a soothing routine to some extent.

"But it did start to confuse me. I didn't understand what was going on and I didn't understand why all I wanted to do on a Saturday morning was pull the covers over my head and sleep."

Listen to Philip McDonald's full story in the Just Listen podcast, here.

It took some time for McDonald and his partner Kate O'Leary to understand he was experiencing ongoing mental distress in the form of depression. He describes himself as a high-functioning depressive, which meant it was harder to acknowledge his struggles, and for others to take it seriously when he did seek help.

Philip McDonald on Takapuna Beach, Auckland. Photo / Doug Sherring

Philip McDonald on Takapuna Beach, Auckland. Photo / Doug Sherring

McDonald eventually left his finance job to start his own business, which gives him more flexibility to maintain his own mental and physical health, while being available for his two school-aged daughters.

His mission now is to help other men not only speak up about their mental health struggles, but to encourage them to look out for their mates and learn to listen, not fix.

"There's not enough awareness yet, certainly in my generation of the 40s and older, of what depression is, how it impacts people, how debilitating it can be, even people living at a low-level situation where they just feel less capable every day."

McDonald says a typical response from a male friend might be to head down to the pub and have a few beers - but believes that's just masking the situation and is part of the "she'll be right" or "toughen up" attitude in New Zealand and Australia.

"It's like saying to someone with a broken leg, 'oh just go for a run'."

O'Leary admits she didn't understand what to do in the beginning, and probably said a few unhelpful things. She remembers wondering in the early days why McDonald couldn't click out of his state of mind.

It wasn't until they went to couples' counselling that they understood McDonald had depression.

Kate says it was difficult to understand what it's like when she had no personal experience of mental distress. However, she had learned to be empathetic over time.

"You just learn to adjust your behaviour, and be there for them, not push them, not try and tell them there's something wrong with them, not try and push and pull them out of their state when they're in the depression, but be understanding and be empathetic."

O'Leary said that in the beginning, she took her partner's moods too personally, but now realises they weren't a deliberate attack on her.

"I wish I had protected my own self-esteem a lot more and my own mental health by not taking things personally."

She hopes the more people talk about their mental health challenges, the easier it will be for all people - including those in supporting roles - to open up.

"It can be a lonely job, and it can be a sad time when you see someone you love, struggle so deeply. You have to keep some joy in your life. For your own sake, and theirs."

Philip & Kate's tips for supporting a person through depression

  • Be empathetic
    • Don't take things personally
    • Find someone you can trust to talk to about the experience
    • Remember that a distressed person can't just snap out of how they feel
    • Let your loved one have their bad days as they will not have the energy to fight every day.


If you are worried about your or someone else's mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call 111.

  • Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
  • Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
  • Youthline: 0800 376 633
  • Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
  • Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
  • Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

There are lots of places to get support. For others, click here.​