Bipolar Disorder and College

I recently had an email asking if a person with bipolar disorder can finish college.

Well, sure they can! But….

There is always a but…

College is the same thing as work. It’s a stimulating environment with a lot of people and a lot of pressure. Bipolar disorder doesn’t like this. It took me eight years to finish college. I didn’t have a treatment plan then. In fact, I didn’t know I had bipolar disorder! The diagnosis explains a lot.

As with any stressful situation, the solution is planning.

You will need a treatment plan before college starts.

I have to be honest and say I can’t go to school full time. It’s too stressful for me- but I can go part time! Many friends of mine with bipolar have master’s degrees, etc. So it’s possible.

If you’re starting college, you have to make a plan now. Try the Health Cards- the plan I use- or get something else. My books can help- especially if your family works with you.  Find something that will help you make collegee a wonderful experience!


12 comments to Bipolar Disorder and College

  • Dana

    My diagnosis is Bipolar I. It was messy, but I earned a law degree at the age of 42. I did it with the 24/7 support of my husband and a wonderful therapist who taught me to enlist the school as a partner on my support team. I did this by meeting with the dean and all my professors individually, and explaining my illness to them and negotiating with them for what I needed to succeed. Without exception, they were accommodating when they could be and always tremendously encouraging. Here’s what I asked for and was granted: extra time to complete projects, an extra year to finish the degree, an agreement from my individual professors not to engage me in the “Socratic Method,” and an absolute commitment by my professors not to make use of gratuitous sexual material in their hypotheticals, in class or on exams, because that was a huge trigger for me. Two requirements were unavoidable and both were disastrous. Evidence class and Moot Court. The sexual abuse cases in evidence class resulted in my having a severe psychotic break and brief hospitalization. Moot Court is a mock trial where students debate in front of a real judge. The dean allowed me to postpone this until just before I graduated, and it, too, was a disaster. My mind went blank many times in the middle of my arguments, resulting in long terrible silences. Worse, during the entire trial, I had tears streaming down my face. But I did it. After law school, the bipolar disorder got in the way too much for me to work as a practicing attorney. (Clients couldn’t accommodate my wild disorganization, my mind going blank under stress, and my unfinished work.) Given the final outcome, I don’t know if this post is helpful except to say that, in my case, I could only get through school by structuring it around my illness and being willing to ask for help. I don’t regret the experience of law school, by the way. A ton of good came out of it. But it did mean a terrible grieving process at the loss of a dream and the painful realization of the limits on my life because of my illness.

  • LuAna Matthews

    I was going to school full time for three terms but this summer my doctor and I decided to change my meds. YUCK…I have been feeling horriable and really had two steps backwards as far as treatment goes. I am thinking of takeing fall term off so that I can get medical help, read your cards and books and get well again. It is sometimes discouriging to try medications and have them mess you up more than help. To make matters worse my family and friends seem to think I can think my way out of this with out medications or help…I am still hopefull for the future but I am strugling but I guess with bipolar WE are always strugling. smile

  • Sandra Sweeney

    I took my first course as a Masters student and it was both wonderful and tough. Wonderful, because I love learning new things and applying them to the work I do. Tough, because of the demands of the coursework and deadlines and exams. I became overwhelmed at the final paper and finally had to exolain to my professor about my BP. She was very understanding and extended the time I needed to complete it. What a relief! I don’t think I can handle the demands of a full-blown graduate courseload, but I know I can take the courses I need for my teaching profession (which requires either a Masters or ongoing coursework). Admitting just how tough it was to do the work is a bit embarrassing to me, and realizing that a Masters Degree may not be within my reach is also a bit saddening. But I will continue to take the classes that interest me and that I can put to good use with my students.

  • G’Day all I am new to the blog, but would like to say something positive on this issue which I hope will encourage everyone else with bipolar. I’m lucky because I don’t suffer from some of the worst symptoms of bipolar & also was rather old when I had my first psychotic episode. So before that I managed to get a BA with Honours & a Phd. Now I am a full time academic in Politics. It was only after working full time for 7 years that I discovered that I had bipolar. It does impact on my work sometimes, but my Dept. has been very good about making some allowances. I have published 2 books and many articles. I have learnt Spanish and travelled to Latin America on my own to do field research on numerous occasions. You too can succeed! As a teacher who has studied all I can say on “college” as you call it in the States is go do it!
    Dr Gerry

  • jegjeg

    My son is 29 and was diagnosed 2.5 years ago with Bipolar 1. He has completed a little over two years of college course work over 10 years. He recently came to me and said he was feeling that college might be too stressful. He asked, “how do I know for sure if college is too stressful…and if it is too stressful, what kind of a job can I get being bi-polar and also having social anxiety? If any of you have any thoughts I would greatly appreciate it. Thanks.

    • This is actually a topic for one of my next newsletters. I will put it on the blog when the newsletter is coming out. This is a big topic- and one that can have a happy answer. I will give all of the tips I used to get through school and how I work now. I will use this question as a focus of the newsletter as it asks the exact question so many of us have.


  • Tamara

    Boy, can I tell you stories about working on my MBA! I am currently on one of those excellerated programs and should have had my MBA in about a year and a half. I have been at it since May of 2007! There have been a few times I have had to drop a course because of very dramatic events in my life. My daughter (now 27), who is also bipolar, was getting into a lot of legal trouble during all this and it was too much stress for me to handle the classes at the time so I would drop. Also during all this one of my daughter’s “friends” stole my computer (it was an online course I was taking)and I had to drop that course. It was in week 7 of an 8 week class! I’m going to a private school so it has been expensive to have to retake these classes but I’m just 5 hours shy of getting my MBA and I should complete those in the next couple of months. It has been a struggle but I am a persistant kind of person so I will get there. By the way, after I finish my MBA I am going to start in on my Master of Accounting and Finance Management!

  • Zach

    Ive tried school as well. I was in the military and went to school for a brief period before I got deployed. When I got back I thought I would try to continue. But I was drinking heavily, sleeping on maybe 15 hours a week, and started to hear things that were not there. I got hospitalized after 9 months of non treatment and got diagnosed as a type 1 with psychotic features. I have a great job now and stable now for a year. I have looked into several schools and hope to find one that fits. I just worry about all the new stresses and responsibilities going with school and what to do to prevent an episode.

  • mili

    hi there!
    I am from India and I want to pursue my masters in the USA.
    I have been suffering from bipolar disorder since 5 years, had 2 attacks.
    which university is best to apply?
    I have minimal knowledge of the health care system in USA.
    Do I come in the category of disabled people?

    • Hello Mili, I’m passing on your question to my friend and colleague Gayathri Ramprasad. She runs a non profit called ASHA International. I’m on the board. We focus on the international community. She will be in touch. She’s traveling to India soon so I’m not sure when she will get back to you, but it will happen! Julie

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