Bipolar College Students Making the Grade

Bipolar disorder is most often diagnosed during one’s college years. Dr. Russ Federman and J. Anderson Thomson Jr, both of the University of Virginia (UVA), know the challenges that college students with bipolar must negotiate during their years of intense studying, new social encounters and life away from home structure. In their book, Facing Bipolar: The Young Adult’s Guide to Dealing with Bipolar Disorder, they dedicate an entire chapter to helping students accept and adapt to their bipolar disorder during college. Federman, the Director of Counseling and Psychological Services, and Thomson, a psychiatrist at UVA, recommend that young adults with bipolar remember the “four S’s” as they transfer into college life: structure, stress, sleep and self-monitoring.


Transitioning from high school to college means transforming childhood into adulthood in four years. The daily routine of high school bells gives way to classes on different days in different buildings, ranging from 8 a.m. to late evening. Those living without their parents for the first time lack the structure that most young adults had at home. Students with bipolar must create structure. Eating regularly even when classes are at irregular times will help keep their diet healthy. Studying at certain times a day will help the student keep from getting over-fatigued. Waking and getting to sleep at certain times will bookend that structure.


There are college students who study all night and those that party all night. Federman and Thomson assert that the student with bipolar should not be either of these people. A lack of sleep can aggravate the symptoms of bipolar. Rather than blame their disorder, bipolar students should accept who they are and adjust to the routines that will help their days be healthier for both their mind and body. Sometimes it might be necessary to skip a party or leave early. That isn’t always a bad thing.


Managing stress will help ward off manic episodes that could send a student with bipolar into the hospital. The large stresses of grades and future careers combine with smaller stresses of getting across campus to the next class on time and fitting in with a new social circle. Some bipolar students have said that they use some of their favorite creative outlets like music, painting or dancing to unwind. Others have found that meditation or an extracurricular sports team helped them relax. When term papers and large projects seem overwhelming, some students have found that breaking the large assignment into smaller tasks helped keep them from being overwhelmed.


When students with bipolar know themselves and know what might trigger their bipolar, they are much better able to manage it. Knowing their triggers might mean closing textbooks, taking a break or declining an alcoholic drink. Students with bipolar should also recognize when they might need some extra support from friends or family. They should check with their college campus to see if there are any support groups for their mental illness. These groups can be immensely helpful since the students might share the same teachers and even same classes. Federman and Thomson stress that students with bipolar should approach college with a flexible strategy. They must realize that it’s possible that a hospital stay or tough semester might push their graduation date back a bit. With optimism and a plan based on their needs, there will come a day when they can march in procession with that tassel on the left side.

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