Back to School With Bipolar? How College Can Unleash Mania

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.

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In his forthcoming book, Facing Bipolar: The Young Adults Guide to Dealing With Bipolar Disorder, Federman outlines what he calls the “four Ss of bipolar stability”: structure, stress management, sleep management, and self-monitoring. This framework entails setting—and sticking to—a regular schedule of studying and sleep, and learning to recognize the signs that you are beginning to drift into mania or hypomania.

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

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