Heading off to college is a daunting time, made even more uncertain when you have bipolar. Keep these tips in mind to smooth your path to graduation.
As a first-year student preparing for my transition to a new college, living situation, and city, mental illness was not even something on my radar. As someone who is typically very prepared, I had an entire list (multiple pages long) dedicated to every possible thing I thought I would need to prepare me—everything from overpriced textbooks to floral dorm room bedding. Bipolar disorder was definitely not a part of my clichéd, dreamy “best years of your life” college experience. Unfortunately, it is the reality for some college students, whether they are entering college already diagnosed, or bipolar starts presenting itself during their college years.
If I were to re-do my list of things I needed to prepare myself for my college experience, I would make my mental health a priority and take into account how bipolar disorder impacts college life! Here are some of the things I would be mindful of during the transition:
If I had been diagnosed with bipolar while I was in high school, that could have had a strong impact on my college selection process. It probably would have been safer to stay at the local university rather than move several hours away. I was only two hours away from my family, but I know others with mental illnesses whose support systems are several states away. I can only imagine how that distance could add stress during an already stressful period, especially if a crisis situation were to occur.
College can be an exciting time, filled with so many appealing opportunities. It can also, however, be overwhelming. I wouldn’t recommend 18-credit semesters; instead, try a lighter load and see how you handle it. Personally, I’ve found summer sessions incredibly helpful, since I can focus all my energy on one class at a time and lighten the load throughout the year. Also, my summer classes have been smaller in terms of class size, which allows for more individualized attention. I have also done a semester part-time. It is possible to reach your goals without risking your mental wellness!
Don’t compare yourself to others
I know the feeling. Everyone else seems to be doing it all:
numerous internships, part-time jobs, full course loads, volunteering, multiple
clubs, a thesis, and research in labs. Remember: other people’s successes are not your failures. There is not just
one path to success. Such jam-packed schedules may be feasible for others, but
juggling too many things is a sure way to exacerbate bipolar symptoms,
triggering mood destabilization and risking your academic success.
Take a semester off
This was a really hard one for me to accept. I took one semester off for severe depression and a year off for mania. As badly as I wanted to just jump back into college life, health needs to come first. Take your time! If you feel like you’re behind others, remind yourself that it is not a race. In the end, it really doesn’t matter if you graduate “on time” or a few semesters later!
Know your mental health resources
My campus had a CAPS center (Counseling and Psychiatric Services), and many colleges have similar services for their students. When moving to college, students usually have to find new providers for therapy and psychiatry. A place like CAPS can be a great place to start, often providing local referrals. It is best to have such providers in place before a crisis or stressful period (e.g. exam season). At the end of the semester, campus counseling services are often overwhelmed, so it is good to have a therapist and/or doctor established as soon as possible. On-campus clubs or local organizations (e.g. NAMI) may also be helpful!
Get plenty of sleep
College students are notorious for pulling all-nighters, whether it’s cramming for a biology exam in the library or staying out partying at the bars. Not that such behavior is healthy for anyone, but it should absolutely be avoided for those with mood disorders. Sleep is a huge trigger for episodes. I have found it helpful to use a smartwatch to track my sleep and monitor if my it is out of my normal range. When I was getting around three hours of sleep a night, it was a disastrous scenario. Trust me when I say that trying to take exams while manic is pretty much impossible! Sleep is crucial!
Make use of academic parachutes, if needed
Unfortunately, sometimes, despite taking meds, going to therapy, and getting plenty of sleep, bipolar disorder can still get in the way of functioning as a college student. It is simply unpredictable. Sometimes, hypomania, mania, or depression may show up during the semester and make it impossible to focus, study, or work. In some cases, it may be necessary to seek assistance from the office for disability support. The office and the academic dean can help with accommodations for bipolar-related performance difficulties. For example, when I was hospitalized for mania, the dean helped with medical withdrawals and postponing exams. It can also be helpful to have such connections when reapplying after taking a semester off. From personal experience, telling the professor directly may be helpful, but it may not. I have had professors who have helped connect me with resources; on the other hand, stigma does exist and even educated professionals may not see bipolar disorder as a legitimate condition or disability. It is better to know about these resources early on than begin to seek them out when you are really struggling!
Get help ASAP
Not able to sleep 2 nights in a row? It might be time to let
your provider know. It could be more than just your typical college-related
stress; in fact, it could be a sign that your medications need to be adjusted.
It is easier to treat an episode early on than seek help once it is already a
I’ve had the experience of attending college both as someone
with and without bipolar disorder. Looking back, I was overwhelmed and made a
ton of mistakes as a student trying to manage my condition. Hopefully, my
experiences and this list can help you avoid the same pitfalls and be better
Anja Burcak is a freelance journalist and blogger with a passion for mental health advocacy. She often writes about mania, depression, and anxiety, from a first-person perspective. Diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder (Type 1) in 2016, she has insight into the struggles many face with finding the right diagnosis, treatment, and providers. Anja often uses creative approaches for psychoeducational purposes, including forms such as social media posts, drawings, infographics, and photography. She hopes that sharing her story on her The Calculating Mind WordPress blog will create more open, honest conversations about mental illnesses, fighting the stigma one post at a time. She plans to expand to new mediums and platforms, including vlogging, podcasts, mental wellness apps, and blog collaborations. You can follow her on Twitter or her blog.
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