At its most severe, bipolar disorder is a dangerous condition that can lead to psychotic episodes and hospitalization. Milder forms of the disorder can cause problems as well, and can interfere with academic success. A 2006 study in the Journal of Affective Disorders compared a group of bipolar adults with a group of healthy adults who had similar IQs and social backgrounds. More than 60% of both groups entered college, but their achievements differed greatly: Nearly half of the control group received a college degree, compared to just 16% of the bipolar group.
Students with bipolar disorder can surviveand even thrivein college, but doing so requires a plan. Taking the proper medications, arranging for the appropriate counseling and medical care on campus, avoiding drugs and alcohol, maintaining a steady sleep and study schedule, and finding sources of peer support are all crucial and can make the difference between achieving your goals and dropping out.
A breeding ground for bipolar symptoms
Jennifer Overfield, 23, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder during her senior year of high school in Rochester, N.Y., but it wasnt until she left the support of her family and went away to college that the disease threatened her life.
During the first weeks of her freshman year, she felt isolated and alone. She quit the soccer team and stopped going to classes. She started to stockpile medications and alcohol. In October, she drove to a nearby apple orchard, downed the pills and alcohol, and passed out. She woke up in the hospital after spending three days in a coma. (A passerby had seen her taillights, found her unconscious, and rushed her to the hospital, where she was medevaced to a larger hospital.) Overfield says she remembers being angry to be alive.
“I kept telling my family and friends that I was OK, but I was planning my suicide,” says Overfield, who is now a healthy senior at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. “I had so much support back homeand then, in this new place, I didnt even know where the counseling center was.”
Numerous aspects of college life can trigger a manic or depressive episode. Sleep deprivation and the keeping of irregular hoursboth common practices on college campusesare known to trigger mania, while binge drinking and the use of substances such as marijuana can cause depression. Stress, whether it stems from the pressure to succeed academically or to fit in socially, can trigger mania as well. According to Russell Federman, PhD, the director of Counseling and Psychological Services at the University of Virginia student health center, the desire to fit in and conform to the college lifestyle can cause some bipolar students to abandon healthy behaviorseven their medications.
College life often reveals the symptoms of bipolar disorder for the first time, particularly for those at risk of the condition who have not yet been diagnosed. (The college years, in fact, overlap with the stage in life in which bipolar disorder typically first appearsbetween 19 and 23 years old, according to some estimates.)
James Whaley experienced his first manic episode at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Whaleys lifestyle was less than healthy: In college he smoked a lot of marijuana and experimented with hallucinogenic mushrooms and a drug similar to LSD. He had a serious depressive episode his freshman year, and then, in the winter of his sophomore year, he entered a full-blown manic episode with psychosis. “I thought I was having an existential breakthrough, but it was really a manic high,” Whaley says.
Federman says that the symptoms of bipolar disorder do not appear spontaneously. “The lifestyle irregularities and the stresses of college life dont in and of themselves cause bipolar disorder,” he explains. “You need a genetic vulnerability for bipolar disorder to emerge. But if youve got that vulnerability, the lifestyle irregularities of the first and second year of college can certainly be a precipitant.”
Strategies for managing bipolar disorder
Students who have been diagnosed with a bipolar spectrum disorder can take steps to minimize the risk of a relapse and stay balanced. Perhaps the most important step is to make sure you have a support system at school, which usually means connecting with the medical and counseling staff on campus. Students who attend school away from home may choose to maintain contact with their existing psychiatrist, but experts urge students to also make contact with campus health services.
“Even if a student with bipolar disorder has what they considering to be their primary health provider at home, they need to have someone at college as well,” says Elizabeth Gong-Guy, PhD, the director of counseling and psychological services at UCLA. “And if a student with bipolar disorder is looking at a college in a rural community, they need to be proactive about what their local access to psychiatric care will be.”
Having a psychiatrist close at hand isnt important only for emergencies. In fact, bipolar students who have been stabilized on medication while at home may need to fine-tune their prescriptions while at school. “Students sometimes need adjustments to their medication in the new environment,” Dr. Kadison says. “It varies a lot, depending on the resiliency of the student, the supports that are already in place, and how much of an academic challenge the student is facing.”
Campus health services also provide counseling, which can help students cope with the emotional stress of living with bipolar disorder. Just as important, counseling can teach students everyday strategies for managing their symptoms.
Stacy Hollingsworth, 25, who graduated from Rutgers University in May 2008, has what her doctor calls bipolar type III, a diagnosis that typically describes a form of hypomania associated with antidepressants. Dealing with depressive episodes in college, Hollingsworth never knew when she was going to crash, so she made sure to do her assignments well ahead of time. She also talked to her professors on the first day of class about her mental health and documented her case at disability services on campus. Students tend to associate such resources with physical disabilities, but these centers often help students with mental health disorders as well.
“I felt OK about sharing with professors, and they were great about working with me,” Hollingsworth says. “Be prepared to encounter people who dont understand, but try to get the college behind you.”
Other sources of support on campus
In addition to campus health services, peer counseling can be a valuable source of support. Overfield now runs a National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) support group on her campus because she doesnt want students to feel as alone as she did her freshman year. She advises students with mental illness to reach out. “We want to make people more aware of the counseling office at orientation,” she says. “One of our major messages is, ‘You are not alone.”
Whaley took a semester off from school and spent a summer at a community college near his home before returning to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville in the fall of 2008. Now a 21-year-old senior, he communicates often with his doctor and parents, a strategy that has helped him remain stable. He tries to schedule his classes in the middle of the day to facilitate a regular sleep schedule, and he does his best to avoid alcohol and drugs. However, he has struggled to find a group of peers who have dealt with mental health problems. Right now, there is no NAMI affiliate on his campus.
In addition to NAMI, an organization called Active Minds is trying to open the dialogue about mental illness on college campuses. Founded by Alison Malmon in 2001, following the suicide of her older brother, the organization now has more than 200 chapters nationwide. Active Minds organizes events such as National Day Without Stigma and has partnered with the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance to create peer support groups on college campuses.