Bipolar Disorder and College

bipolar-disorder-in-collegeThe first time an 18 year old moves away to college can be a bit traumatic under the best conditions. Suddenly, the student has lost the daily support of parents and family while at the same time gaining an entire menu of new stressors. Young college students are notorious for crazy sleep patterns and increased social activities right alongside stepped-up academic pressures. For some students, these changes can trigger the onset of a mood disorder known as bipolar disorder. That condition will make it difficult for even highly intelligent kids to finish the college education they have begun.

Bipolar disorder is a mental illness characterized by times of high mood and energy – known as the manic phase – during which the person can be tremendously productive. Those episodes are eventually followed by times of depression when the thought processes as well as the person’s mood can seem to drag. Some with bipolar disorder say that they spend only a small portion of each month feeling stable or “normal”.  This unpredictable cycling of mood and energy can make steady academic performance hugely challenging.

That bipolar disorder affects a person’s ability to finish college was demonstrated back in 2006 when the Journal of Affective Disorders published a study comparing graduation rates between those with and those without the disorder. The study compared 60 bipolar-affected adults with 60 non-affected adults all of an equivalent IQ and social class. Among the non-affected adults, 47 percent had earned a college degree while just 16 percent of those with bipolar disorder had received a college diploma.

Research also reveals that while kids with bipolar disorder can graduate from institutes of higher learning, they tend to work at a job that does not fully utilize their skill set and education level.  These same college-educated workers also tend to earn less than their comparably educated healthy peers. The disorder doesn’t inhibit intellect or skill, but it does seem to affect life deeply enough to impact the ability to complete an education and pursue stimulating careers.

This is not to say that kids with bipolar disorder should be discouraged from attending college. It is to say that those students can finish and even thrive during college, but only with attention and planning. Since the steady support of family is usually a casualty of college, kids will need to seek out a new support structure. Often this will be through the university health services.  Regular communication with home is also more important for students with the disorder.

Scheduling is of keen importance when bipolar disorder is involved. Affected kids will need to maintain routines for study times and social activities and definitely guard their regular sleep schedule. It also is not a bad idea to plan to tackle all assigned work as soon as possible. During manic phases, explosive productivity is no problem, but since the depressive episodes can occur without much warning, students would do well to stay ahead on the class work.

Bipolar disorder affects 10 million Americans and half of them saw symptoms begin to emerge during their college-age years. If that happens, college is not a lost dream, but it is one that will require some extra effort and maybe an extra year or so of life investment.

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