For most American college students, the influx of new social opportunities, academic demands, pulling all nighters, and the ubiquitous college party scene can lead to high levels of stress. But students with bipolar disorder or other mental health problems, and students with a family history of mental health disorders, are especially vulnerable in a college environment.
The pressure of academic performance, social demands, and irregular sleep patterns are all triggers of depression as well as mania, the euphoric, revved-up state characteristic of bipolar disorder. In fact, college is one of the most common places people experience their first bout of depression or mania. According to Russell Federman, Ph.D, the director of Counseling and Psychological Services at the University of Virginia student health center, the desire to fit in and conform to the college lifestyle can cause students with mental health problems to abandon healthy behaviors, even their medications. Without the right treatment and support, bipolar college students face higher dropout rates, drug and alcohol abuse, and even suicide.
A 2006 study in the Journal of Affective Disorders compared a group of bipolar adults with a group of healthy adults who had similar IQs and social backgrounds. More than 60 percent of both groups entered college, but their achievements differed greatly: Nearly half of the control group received a college degree, compared to just 16 percent of the bipolar group.
Students with bipolar disorder or other mental health problems can succeed in college, but doing so requires dedication to a plan. The following points are ALL crucial and can make the difference between achieving your college success goals and dropping out or worse, losing control of your mental health.
* Taking the proper medications, and ensuring they are easily accessible for refills
* arranging for the appropriate counseling and medical care on campus in addition to outside support
* avoiding drugs and alcohol and even caffeine, as they can render medications ineffective
* maintaining a steady sleep and study schedule
* finding sources of peer support
In his 2010 book, “Facing Bipolar: The Young Adult’s Guide to Dealing With Bipolar Disorder”, Federman outlines what he calls the “four S’s of bipolar stability”: structure, stress management, sleep management, and self-monitoring. This framework includes 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.
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.
This author, Dr. Christina Villarreal is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Oakland, CA.