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 wasn’t 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 didn’t 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.