by A.J.
(Springfield, MO)

Bipolar Disorder and College Experience

Having a healthy college experience begins long before you haul your belongings up to your dorm room on move-in day. In fact, it even begins long before you have sent your acceptance letter. The first step in surviving and thriving in college is believing you can.

Bipolar disorder does present a person with plenty of struggles, and learning how to manage this disorder is vital, but it does not have to keep you from pursuing your dream.

These practical tools can help you prepare and plan for a successful college career and beyond.

As soon as you start the visits to prospective universities, keep in mind that this will be your home for the next few years and the resources a college offers will be important in your decision-making. Inquire about health and counseling services offered at the university/college. Most institutions offer individual counseling at no additional charge, and some even provide psychiatric services. Consider your timeline and expectations, and be flexible. Not all college students complete their degrees in four years. Find out your options before committing to a school. Your initial plan may be to attend full-time, but you may eventually decide to switch to part-time, so choose a school that allows for this.

Stress is a major trigger for bipolar episodes. One freedom that college brings is the amount of free time you will suddenly have since unlike your high schools years, you won’t be in class all day; however, this is also one of the greatest challenges of college life. Since structure is crucial for someone with bipolar disorder, the transition from high school to college can take you by surprise. To take control of your time, write down your schedule for the week, including study times, breaks, social events and any other commitments you have. The next step is to stick to it, including those study breaks. Even if you feel like you are on a roll in the middle of that French lit paper, still take the break that you had planned on, because it will help your focus in subsequent study slots.

Tips for college students with Bipolar Disorder

One of the fundamental keys to managing the college course load is to work ahead. Map out the entire semester of deadlines and exams as soon as you get each syllabus. Because you cannot always predict when you will have manic or depressive symptoms, leaving studying to the last minute could be detrimental if your thoughts are racing or if you can barely get out of bed the day of an exam. Thus, adhere to your schedule.

Some stress management skills include doing things you enjoy, using deep breathing, or visualizing a calming scene. You can also create some short positive phrases you can say to yourself in a time of distress.

Monitor your mood with a daily log that includes the highs and lows that you experience. Also keep track of suicidal thoughts on the log and the amount of sleep you get each night. The purpose of the log is to be aware of the patterns your body, mind and emotions follow, and to be proactive if something is out of line. For example, if you see that you have gotten three hours of sleep the past four nights you might need to call your psychiatrist.

Make sure you are religiously taking your medication. In addition, abstaining from alcohol use is necessary. Not only does alcohol have a negative impact on the disorder itself, it is dangerous to use along with your medication. This does not mean that you cannot have fun; just opt for something non-alcoholic like soda or juice.

College is the first time that a student is able to use a credit card without the close supervision of his or her parents. With limited or no financial guidance, combined with the impulsivity and inability to make wise choices in a state of mania, your best bet is to refrain from using a credit card. Go with cash or a debit card instead.

Get your sleep! This is often a challenge for college students. Maintaining your circadian rhythm, however, is essential to your well-being. The most effective preventive measure you can take regarding sleep patterns is to consistently go to bed and wake up at the same time. In the moment you may want to spend time with your friends in the dorms, but think long-term. Ask yourself, “What is the worst thing that would happen if I stay up late?” and “What is the worst thing that would happen if I go to bed on time?”

The answer to the first question might be hospitalization. Lack of sleep can lead to a manic episode, and ending up in the hospital may lead you to delay your college degree. Making the small sacrifice of keeping your bedtime may not be the most fun decision at the time, but it is well worth it.

Change is difficult, so surround yourself with supportive people. At first, your support system may be your family and friends from your hometown. It may also include a therapist at the counseling center as you walk through this new period of life.

Recognize your limits, but also realize that you are unique, with many strengths and weaknesses. Shame may creep in when it seems like you are not “as good as” other students around you, who can handle more.

However, you are someone of great value, and what makes you unique will give you opportunities that only you can fulfill.1

You have been called to thrive. Take the call!