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Facing College with Bipolar Disorder

Lynne Taetzsch Health Guide December 12, 2006
  • A recent New York Times article by Lynette Clemetson discusses the problems faced by bipolar students going off to college for the first time. It is difficult enough to make the transition to life at college in a dormitory, with the temptations of night cramming, drinking, partying, and the freedom of living away from home. Having the additional burden of dealing with mood swings, medication, and the need for routine and stability just makes the challenge that much more difficult.

    When I traveled 3,000 miles from my parents’ home in New Jersey to the University of Southern California when I was seventeen, I did not know that I had bipolar disorder. I wanted to get as far away from home as possible, and relished the freedom that would bring. Even though I lived in a dormitory with strict rules and curfews, I felt free because I knew that no one there really cared what I was doing.

    Then a series of poor choices like dating older men, drinking wildly, and confiding in the wrong friends, led to a breakdown and depression. I stopped going to classes and started seeing the school psychiatrist. Thankfully, with the support of one very good friend I had made, I was able to make it through the end of the school year. I was still not diagnosed as bipolar, however, and spent a number of years changing from one major to another, and from one school to another, until I finally graduated with a B.A. twelve years after I had started college.

    It is still difficult for students who are bipolar, but today there is more awareness of the issues and more support available on many campuses. According to the New York Times article, a student-led mental health advocacy organization that began in 2001 at the University of Pennsylvania now has 56 chapters. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has also formed 30 student groups on campus, and is in the process of organizing 18 more. These groups are set up as student clubs and financed by fundraisers and school budgets.

    There are still too many campuses without support groups for bipolar students, but most at least offer counseling and referrals to outside resources. At my own bipolar support group, we occasionally have a student from the local university join us. If you are a student or the parent of a student, it’s a good idea to find out what help is available on or near campus before a problem comes up.

    One of the worst things for those of us with bipolar is too much pressure and stress, which is exactly what young students may feel when they are worried about the possibility of losing a scholarship or disappointing their parents. Having too high expectations—that one must graduate in four years and get a top grade-point average, for example—may put so much stress on a young student that she breaks down under the weight of it. Having goals is important, but timetables should be flexible in case a lower course-load becomes necessary. Our health is more important than a graduation date.

    Share your experience and join the discussion about coping with bipolar disorder in college in the bipolar message boards.