Back to School With Bipolar? How College Can Unleash Mania


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 appears—between 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.”


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Lead writer: Michele Hoos
Last Updated: September 15, 2009

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