Can You Graduate College If You Have Bipolar Disorder?

Last Updated: 12 Jul 2019

If you think it is impossible to earn a degree with a diagnosis of bipolar, you are wrong. Wherever there is a will, there is always a way.

I have always wanted to do one thing with my life: be an elementary school teacher.

When I was 19 years old I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder 1. That was back in 1990-something. I had just graduated from high school. High school was wonderful. I had many friends, played sports, and attempted to sing in the choir despite being tone deaf.

Life was a bed of roses until my junior year. That summer I experienced my first depression. The warm California sun was out for the world to see. Everyone saw it except for me. That summer I slept a lot. I had no spunk. I loved going to the beach. During that time not even seeing the ocean could make me happy. I remember having a thought of death. That was terrifying. My parents recognized the signs of depression and took me to my first psychologist.  The darkness faded and I could see the sun again.

After I graduated high school I went on a cruise with a friend. That was my first taste of mania. I was high as a kite that weekend. It felt like the best weekend of my life. When I came out I ended up in my first psychiatrists office and diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I was then prescribed Lithium.

This diagnosis came at a hard time for me. School never came easy. Bipolar disorder got in the way of my learning. I enrolled in a community college to begin my college education. Things were going well until my father dropped a bomb. We were going to have to relocate to Iowa because of his job. I was crushed. I traded my flip-flops for snow boots and made the move.

Then I enrolled in another community college. After the move I was connected to an amazing psychologist. She was in my corner from day one. No matter how hard I tried I could not get algebra to stick in my brain. Not even with the help of a tutor with an accent from Australia could I get it. I failed and failed. Finally, I dropped the class. The other classes were not that easy either. I recall having to use note cards to memorize boring history facts.

After several semesters I had enough credits to transfer to a four year university. I chose Central College, a conservative tiny college in a small Dutch town. This was the type of place where everything closed on a Sunday––even Walmart. It was recommended that I only take a few classes at a time. I immediately met a very kind young man who became my boyfriend. Even taking a few classes proved to be more than I could handle. Bipolar disorder showed its nasty head as I attempted to learn Spanish and in the rest of the classes I was taking.

I was trying to get into the elementary teacher’s program. At the end of the semester my GPA was not high enough. I was rejected. My mother even tried to fight for me. She went into “mother hen mode” and went to talk to the professor in charge of the elementary education program. It didn’t help. I was devastated and mad. My dream was dying. I had tried my hardest and it simply was not good enough. I felt defeated and lost.

After talking to my very supportive parents and my psychologist I made the decision to give my dream one more shot. Once again I transferred to a university not far from the old one.

Unfortunately, things got worse. I was flying too high and experiencing mania. I still had my boyfriend, but remember getting very cozy with the guys on the wrestling team. I joined the soccer team and my Lithium level got too high. I was nearly toxic during one game. When I saw my psychologist, she chewed me out. I could have died of a massive heart attack she informed me. I experienced high amounts of anxiety to the point I found myself in the emergency room because I felt like I was having a heart attack. I wore a halter monitor for 24 hours after that. Needless to say that was not a successful semester.

At the end of the semester once again my grades were not high enough to enter the elementary school program. I felt like I had been dragged in from sea and had crashed into rocks on the shore.

 I had made a decision. I was dropping out of college. Enough was enough. Who needs a college degree anyways? My parents and psychologist let me. There was one condition I had to find a full time job that included medical benefits.

In the neighborhood we lived in was a daycare. I had always loved children so I applied to work there and landed myself a job with two year olds. It didn’t take long before I was exhausted zipping up coats and trying to find children’s mittens. The job was so exhausting.  I was miserable. I had to get out of there.

There was light at the end of the tunnel. A few months before I started I had applied to get into Drake University for summer school. I was accepted into the college.

The deal with my psychologist and parents was I had to live at home so my parents could help monitor me. I didn’t like that one bit, but I had no choice.

Drake was really challenging. My psychologist was able to test me and come up with a fancy word for bipolar disorder. That meant I had a disability and could qualify for accommodations.

Drake proved to be a challenge as well, but a fruitful one. There were times when the stress nearly broke me. Since I was at a small school, I was able to get one on one attention from the professors. Setting up meetings individually helped a lot.

With a diagnosis of a disability I had no time limits on me when I took my tests. I did not feel pressure to finish fast. I had a note taker in each class. I also recorded my lectures on tape recorder.

I was able to find a supportive group of friends. That was very important to me. I still had the support from my Brainiac boyfriend who helped me with my papers. My parents and I were constantly at each other’s throats, but in the end they were in my corner.

I put everything I had into school, well most of the time. I found study groups to be a part of I frequented the Drake library for countless hours. I made flash card to try to get things stick in my head.

At the beginning of my Drake days a lady told my mom I would never be a college graduate because I have bipolar. I have to admit, I really wanted to give up so many times after I would fail tests or try my best and get a D. My support system would not let me. I also believe God gave me the strength and wisdom which carried me through those days.

The long-awaited day of my graduation finally came. Only my family and a few close friends new just how important that day was. Just like the Whitney Houston song “Greatest Love All” it was my moment in time. On that day I received my B.A. in Sociology. I am sure it meant more to me then all the graduates combined.

These days I stare at the diploma on the wall and wipe dust off it. It was years ago. When life gets to be too much and the road too long, I look at it and am reminded of my accomplishment.

I smile and know no matter how many curve balls that will be thrown my way I will conquer them with love from my support system and with a God who loves me.

If you think it is impossible to earn a degree with a diagnosis of bipolar you are wrong. If there is a will, there is always a way.

About the author
Susan Johnson was diagnosed bipolar 1 in 1995. She graduated from Drake University with a B.A. in Sociology. She is the author of “Some Dreams Are Worth Keeping” A Memoir of My Bipolar Journey. She is an inspirational speaker. Her true passion in life is helping break the stigma of living with a mental illness and bring those living with one hope. She currently works with special education students as an Instructional Assistant for a school district in Nevada. She is proud to be a Christian. She enjoys hiking, baking, traveling, yoga, spending time with her Goddaughter and trips to Cancun. She makes her home in fabulous Las Vegas with her husband Gary and Siberian cat Angel-Ann. Visit her website.
  1. I too am bipolar, not diagnosed until several years after graduating college. What I connected with in this story that in college (actually my whole educational career, 2nd grade on) was that I struggled because I’m dyslexic. I never worked so hard in my life to fail Accounting, twice. I did have those accommodations , like double time on test, recording classes etc. They helped, yet it was work, hard work. What I’ve learned about my dyslexia and now my bipolar is that I’m determined, but more importantly I have to be kind to myself and take time for me. Thank you for sharing your story.

  2. Thanks for your amazing story of accomplishment! I was diagnosed properly in 2016 after 20 years as being only diagnosed with depression. Suddenly my manic episodes that had been a feature my whole life made sense. I’m not bragging, merely encouraging everyone out there. I’m submitting my PhD to the editor today and will be submitting it for examination by the end of August. I was in and out of various PhD programs before my diagnosis but will finally graduate at age 60. Life with bipolar is a journey. Stay strong.

  3. Thanks for your comment. I am so glad your son is having success. It takes a lot of support for those of us living with bipolar disorder to have success. I am glad to hear you are so supportive. Support from my husband and parents has been so key in mine.

  4. So glad you found my blog helpful. Best of luck on your journey.

  5. That is a very personal insight into your life and accomplishment. Thank you Susie for sharing! Parents and education professionals take note. It is possible to finish and get a viable degree while struggling with bipolar.
    As a father with a son who is bipolar, I want to offer encouragement to all the parents dealing with a child in college.
    In December, 2018 our son did graduate from college at age 28. He struggled and had several “breaks” over the past nine years. He has been in six different hospitals and mental health facilities. Our family has giving him love and support thru everything. It wasn’t until he went to Skyland Trails in Atlanta, GA that he truly got positive and lasting results with a life changing treatment plan. We owe our sincerest thanks to the dedicated staff at this marvelous facility. They saved our son’s life!!!
    He has a degree in accounting and is working full time with a great life ahead of him.
    There is hope. It takes a loving family and determination to keep looking for help and never give up being the outspoken parent. His mom has made so many sacrifices and her love for him is the bond that keeps him from giving up. Remember no matter how dark the day may be, there is a path to success.

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