Smiling Depression: What You Need to Know

For many people, the word “depression” calls to mind some specific mental images. It’s easy to picture someone who can’t stop crying, or who can’t seem to find the energy to get out of bed. However, depression doesn’t always look the way you would think it does, or the way it’s portrayed in popular culture. Take a look at some of the things that you should know about smiling depression and how it could affect your teen.


Why Is It Called Smiling Depression?

“Smiling depression” isn’t a diagnosis that you’d find in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). A more clinical phrase would be something like “depressive disorder with atypical features”. What it means is that the patient has depression, but doesn’t exhibit the usual outward symptoms of the condition.

A person with smiling depression can appear to be very happy and very high-functioning. 

While they may experience many of the commonly-known signs of depressions, such as changes in their sleeping or eating habits, fatigue, feelings of hopelessness, or loss of interest in activities they previously enjoyed, they don’t show evidence of these symptoms for the casual observer to see, and they may not talk about them, even to friends or loved ones. It’s possible for a person with smiling depression to not even realize themselves that they are depressed.

You can think of smiling depression as similar to someone putting a smiling mask over a sad face, but it’s important to realize that they’re probably not purposely hiding their feelings. People who have smiling depression may be afraid that showing outward signs of their depression would be perceived as weakness or would cause a burden on the people they care about. They may feel that others have worse problems, so they don’t have the right to complain about their own. Or they may simply have convinced themselves that they’re fine and don’t need any help.


What Causes Smiling Depression?

Depression is a complex condition with a number of possible causes, and often there is more than one cause at play in an individual person’s case. Depression has a genetic component and is related to the composition of chemicals in your brain. Certain medical conditions or medications can contribute to depression, as can substance abuse. Environmental factors are at play as well. Depression can be triggered by certain life events, like experiencing violence or other trauma, losing a loved one, or even a major change, like moving or graduating.

All the same factors that go into causing regular depression can also be involved in causing smiling depression. However, there are a few other things that make smiling depression more likely. A tendency toward perfectionism is one example. People who are especially driven to be high achievers who succeed seemingly single-handedly may be especially prone to hiding their depression from the world, or even suppressing it strongly enough that they don’t realize it themselves.

People who are held to a high standard by others can also be at special risk for smiling depression. Adolescents often feel great pressure to make good grades, maintain jobs, participate in extracurricular activities, and keep up an active social life. Some teenagers feel pressure to get into highly competitive colleges, and may worry that they won’t succeed in life if they don’t meet very high standards. Internet culture may also put pressure on teenagers, as they feel compelled to present themselves publicly in the best light at all times.


What Are the Dangers?

Depression leaves sufferers feeling worthless, hopeless, and isolated, which greatly impacts their quality of life in a negative way. Depression can also adversely affect physical health, as it’s associated with things like unhealthy weight gain or weight loss, poor sleeping habits, and destructive habits like smoking or alcohol and drug use, among other things.

It’s also important to keep in mind that depression can lead to self-harm or suicide. This is where smiling depression becomes particularly dangerous. People who suffer from smiling depression may be at particular risk for suicide attempts. There are a few reasons why. For one thing, because the signs and symptoms of depression may not be apparent to outsiders – or even to the sufferer themselves – they may not be as likely to seek help before the problem gets out of control.

In cases where a person dies by suicide, it’s not uncommon for friends or family members to express shock and surprise. When someone appears happy, healthy, and high-achieving, it can be hard to imagine that they may be considering suicide.

People suffering from smiling depression may also simply have more energy and motivation to plan and carry out a suicide attempt. Depression can sap a person’s energy reserves, sometimes leaving them without the will to get out of bed. As disabling as this can be, it could be a protective factor against suicide in some cases. Planning and carrying out a suicide takes more energy, which means that depressed people who experience surges of energy, such as people with smiling depression who continue to function at high levels, are more at risk of initiating a suicide attempt.


What To Do If You Think Your Teen May Be Depressed

Because the symptoms of depression are masked in smiling depression, sometimes even from the sufferer themselves, it can be difficult to know if your teen is struggling. However, close observation and frequent checking in can reveal subtle signs of depression.

It’s important to initiate conversations with your teen about how they’re feeling. Let them know that you’re there to listen and that you won’t judge them or be disappointed in them for expressing themselves honestly. Evaluate your own expectations for your teen and make sure that those expectations are reasonable – don’t hold them to impossible standards, and make sure that they know it’s OK to fall short sometimes. If your teen expresses feelings of depression or displays worrying signs of depression, intervention from a trained therapist can help.


Related Articles:

4 Things Only People With Smiling Depression Will Understand

Could Your Teen Be Struggling with Smiling Depression?

Atypical Depression: Causes, Signs, and Treatment

Teen Depression and School Performance

Further Reading