12 Things I'd Tell My Past Self About Going to College With Bipolar Disorder


Navigating college can, well, be awesome. And for some it can suck. When you have bipolar disorder, it can be both simultaneously.

When I went to college, I had not yet been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. In fact, I had not been diagnosed with anything, even though I should have (but that’s a rant for another day). However, as someone who now can look back at my college years and see both the mania and depression at work in different times, I think I have some helpful advice.

And, as a caveat, I also offer the following as someone with a Ph.D. in the humanities who has taught both online and in the traditional classroom. I have watched students with mental illness struggle and watched others with the same illness thrive. I have tried to help students and have let others refuse my help. But the following comes from being both a student who had bipolar and a professor with bipolar watching my students struggle.

So, here are the top 12 things I’d say to someone with bipolar (or, really, any mental illness) about attending college. (As a side note, I believe much of this applies to both traditional and online colleges, but I am focusing on more traditional campuses right now).

1. Find a counselor on campus. 

It can be particularly challenging to find is a good counselor in general. Trying to find a counselor or therapist in a foreign environment who can work within the confines of our budget is even more difficult. But there are a few things I recommend. First, see if your school has a counseling center and make sure, if they do, this is not an “academic counseling” center. Academic counselors are not therapists and may not be equipped to do the heavy-lifting a person with bipolar needs. Instead, find someone who specializes in mental health counseling at the counseling center.

If the counseling center does not have anyone specializing in such (which, while incredibly unfortunate, is somewhat common), go to the university health center. There is usually a number of nurses and a nurse practitioner, at least, there. They can point you to the right place for finding quality therapy. You can also email the professors in the counseling or psychology department on campus and see if they may have suggestions. Who knows? Maybe one will offer to see you?

2. Meditate.

One of the things I have found the most helpful in dealing with my bipolar is meditation, or what is commonly referred to as the practice of mindfulness. The idea is to simply be present in the moment you are in right then. And to try and take the presentness into the next parts of your day.

I practice meditation in the following way. First, I set my timer for about five minutes. I do this after I have woken up a little bit, had coffee, whatever. But, it’s before I start my day seriously, like going to class and the like. I spend the five minutes just being present, listening to what is going on, feeling the air, smelling in smells, and letting my thoughts wash over me. I don’t try to control them, just let them come and go. When the ringer goes off, I start my day. I feel better and it helps me stay present in the different moments of the day while also keep racing thoughts at bay. Lastly, if I need to do it one or two or even eight more times during the day, I can.

3. Find a support group.

It is imperative you find support on campus. You have to have people who know what you are going through and what it means to check up on you. This is what a support group does. It’s a place where you are valued and can be yourself and reveal your truest feelings.

The organization I run, Here/Hear, organizes peer-to-peer support groups on college campuses. Our groups use meditation/mindfulness, discussion, and engaged reflection to help each other live lives to the fullest. And if you do not have a group on campus, contact us and we’ll help get one set up. We do this because we know the power of groups to effect positive change and growth in people’s lives. We also know they are places you can land when the world is falling apart.

4. Figure out where to get your meds.

If you have been diagnosed bipolar, you are probably on meds. And you need those meds so you can survive. With that in mind, you need to find a place where you can easily get your medication. This matters if you have a car, where your insurance is accepted (if you have it), if you can do mail-order medications at the school, etc. And, figure out what you need to do when your medications inevitably run out. Having plans in place for all of this is important.

5. Exercise.

The one thing you can do to naturally boost your mood and maintain your mood is regular exercise. This does not have to be anything great or over-the-top (no need to train for an ultra marathon or becoming a professional body builder), but some exercise every day can help maintain a good mood. This is also a really important habit for you to get into for the rest of your life as it becomes even more imperative for your mood to exercise when you are older.

6. Have a bedtime and wake up time.

I know. This sucks. You are in college and staying up late and getting up late or just staying out all night are part of the allure. I get it. But I can tell you from personal experience, this is a bad idea. I made my worst mistakes in college when I deprived myself of sleep for days (when I was not manic). Staying on a schedule, at least a schedule where you sleep seven or eight hours a night, will help you maintain some steadiness in your life. It’s also important because studies have shown sleeplessness can lead to both mania and depression in the bipolar person: neither one is good or fun and both are quite dangerous. So, sorry, get some sleep.

7. Eat well… or as well as you can.

For as much as you pay for your dining plan as part of your room and board, you’d think colleges would offer much healthier and better alternatives, but they often don’t. So, you are going to be tempted beyond tempted to eat crap quite a bit of the time. And if you live off campus, that is going be a much bigger temptation because crappy food is often much cheaper. But you need to eat at least somewhat well and mindfully. And the reason is that processed, fried, canned foods can have an effect on your mood. They also are unhealthy and you probably are already dealing with enough medical issues so why tack on one more?

8. Find the right friends.

Now I sound like your high school guidance counselor. I apologize. But finding the right friends is really important. One of the biggest issues I had my first year or two of school was I had a group of friends  I thought I was supposed to be friends with – mostly because they were from the same hometown – who ultimately exacerbated my mental illness. It was not that they were bad people. They weren’t. Instead, they just did things that raised my anxiety, they encouraged my hypomanic episodes (who doesn’t want a friend who can break every social barrier in a quick second?), and they didn’t “get” my depression — or worse, they wanted me to wallow in my depression because it made them feel a little better.

I’d encourage finding friends who have similar interests, believe in similar things, and who don’t give you crap for going to bed at midnight every night and waking at 8 a.m. Even on Saturday.

9. Figure out what you can handle.

One of the most difficult things college can bring is an abundance of opportunity. That, as well as the perceived need to finish certain things in a certain amount of time (everyone nowadays thinks college will take four years when the average person spends almost five years there). The real issue for the person with bipolar disorder is you can only handle so much. When we start to push against that limit, bad things can happen. We may become manic and do all this work and more work and beyond and end up in some sort of psychotic state or we may become incredibly depressed because our brain shuts down and can’t handle it. Or both.

Find what you can handle and evaluate that every year. Your first year you might be able to handle a larger class load because the courses are simply meeting general education requirements and do not require the time that, say, an advanced biology class and lab require or calculus II does or an advanced writing seminar. The thing is, you know you and you need to figure out what you can handle. Doing so now will help tremendously as you go throughout your life.

10. Screw other people’s expectations.

If your parents think you should get all A’s while managing a maxed course load and doing band, and having bipolar disorder, well invite them to come down to campus and try. If your boyfriend thinks you should travel every weekend to come see him because you’ve got less to do than he does or whatever, tell him it is a two way street.

Here’s the thing. Only you know what it is like to live with your mental illness. I know at times I was the most productive person in the world because that’s how my hypomanic states worked. I was laser focused. Others’ hypomania makes them ADHD-like, so they can’t concentrate on anything for more than a few minutes. You have to have your own expectations and live up to those. Other people’s expectations are merely going to cause you stress and, if like me, anxiety. You can’t meet them. You can only do what you can do. Screw everyone else.

11. Avoid alcohol and drugs.

This is a tough one. On most college campuses, going out to Ladies Night Wednesday, Thirsty Thursday, Friday Night Bombs, Saturday Night Shots, and Sunday Morning Hangover Cures is part of the college experience. Going to other campus parties that have alcohol and drugs is also a major part of the “college experience.” But let me let you in on a little secret: you are probably already on a cocktail of mind-altering drugs and adding more to the mix is not safe. And it can also throw you off by messing with your other meds.

The other thing to remember about illicit drugs is they are never the same. One strand of marijuana is different than another, one batch of heroin or cocaine can be cut or made differently than the next, etc. And the way that drugs act with you and your brain can change so the first time you may have a great time but the second one may result in a terrible trip. You just never know how something may affect your brain.

12. Have fun.

My last piece of advice I’d tell myself is to have fun and don’t take college too seriously. You need to find friends who do what you think is important. Your grades are not the be-all end-all of life. Hanging out, seeing a concert, watching a movie, playing frisbee, or whatever else needs to be part of your college experience. If you don’t have fun, none of the above will matter anyway. Just make sure it is fun that lends itself to helping your mood.

Image via Thinkstock.

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