Support for College Students with Bipolar Disorder

A mood disorder previously called manic depression, bipolar disorder involves significant mood swings. Bipolar disorder symptoms include emotional “highs” during manic or hypomanic states. Many individuals also experience episodic or chronic bipolar depression.

There is no cure for this mental illness, and managing bipolar disorder effectively can prove challenging. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, bipolar students are 70% more likely than students without psychiatric diagnoses to drop out of college. However, learners can implement effective treatments to manage bipolar disorder and focus on their college education.

This guide surveys the primary types and causes of bipolar disorder, along with the disorder’s effects on college students. The following sections explore treatments, management tips, and on- and off-campus resources for students with bipolar disorder.

Understanding Bipolar Disorder and Recognizing the Signs



Getting a clear diagnosis of bipolar and related disorders can be challenging. Students need to understand and effectively treat the disorder. This section covers various bipolar disorder conditions, including bipolar I, bipolar II, and cyclothymic disorder.

Types of Bipolar Disorder Conditions

  1. Bipolar I Disorder: This mental health condition involves severe manic symptoms requiring hospitalization and/or manic episodes of at least seven days. Bipolar I usually includes depression of two weeks or more.
  2. Bipolar II Disorder: Individuals suffering from bipolar II typically experience major depressive episodes. Bipolar II also includes hypomanic episodes but not severe manic episodes.
  3. Cyclothymic Disorder: This condition involves at least two years of frequent hypomanic and depressive symptoms. Children and teenagers experiencing these issues for at least one year may receive this diagnosis.

What Causes Bipolar Disorder?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, current research indicates that genetic heredity largely determines susceptibility to bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder tends to run in families. However, people with genetic susceptibility do not necessarily develop this illness. The Mayo Clinic cites high stress, trauma, and substance abuse as additional risk factors for developing bipolar disorder symptoms.

Who Is at Risk for Bipolar Disorder?

Certain genes make people more vulnerable to bipolar disorder. That means that individuals with parents or siblings who have bipolar disorder face greater risk for developing the disorder themselves. Trauma and high-stress conditions can increase the likelihood of bipolar disorder in genetically predisposed individuals. Abusing alcohol and drugs may also contribute to the development of mental health issues.

What Are the Symptoms of Bipolar Disorder?

Symptoms depend on the type of bipolar disorder. People with bipolar disorder experience hypomania or mania, which may manifest in increased energy or agitation, poor decision-making, and less sleep. Related bipolar disorder symptoms include unusual talkativeness, racing thoughts, and distractibility. Bipolar I involves more severe manic episodes that require medical intervention. Bipolar II typically features milder hypomania symptoms and major depression issues.

The Effects of Bipolar Disorder in College



Bipolar disorder can pose significant health, social, and learning challenges for college students. Proper bipolar disorder management can help learners manage symptoms and optimize their college opportunities. The list below highlights challenges that learners with bipolar disorder commonly face.

Poor Decision-Making
During manic or hypomanic episodes, individuals with bipolar disorder may make risky decisions. Substance abuse, risky sexual choices, and poor spending decisions can interfere with student health and learning.
Trouble Focusing
Manic, hypomanic, and depressive symptoms can impair a learner’s focus while studying. Manic states often come with racing thoughts, distractibility, and agitation. Meanwhile, bipolar depression often causes poor motivation and focus.
Stress Triggers
High stress can contribute to the development of bipolar disorder. Stress may also worsen depressive, hypomanic, and manic episodes. These symptoms can make it difficult to sleep adequately, attend class, and study.
Medication Interference
People with bipolar disorder usually manage their condition with medication. Many medications have side effects such as fatigue, nausea, and digestive issues. These problems can hamper learners’ ability to focus and to attend college classes and events.
Impulsive Behavior
Manic symptoms and episodes may impair emotional and behavioral regulation. Impulsive behavior can cause students to skip class, participate in risky activities, and fail to follow a healthy schedule.
Insomnia
During manic episodes, individuals with bipolar I often cannot sleep well. Lack of sleep poses various health dangers and interferes with a normal school schedule. Insomnia also frequently accompanies bipolar II hypomanic and depressive symptoms.


Bipolar Support Services for College Students

On-Campus Support Resources

  • Counseling Centers

    Most colleges offer mental health counseling services for students. College counselors often provide talk therapy rather than psychiatric medicine. They can help students cope with stress, trauma, and depression. College counseling centers may refer students to psychiatrists as needed.

  • Disability Centers

    Learners with bipolar disorder can receive support from their school’s disability resource office. Disability centers advocate for students and help them secure learning accommodations and services.

  • Student Health Center

    Many campuses operate a student health center where students can seek medical care from healthcare providers. Some health centers may include psychiatric care and services.

  • Meditation Centers

    According to the Mayo Clinic, meditation can reduce various mental health issues, including stress. Some campuses feature meditation centers, clubs, or classes to help students learn holistic stress management techniques.

  • Campus Advocacy and Support Groups

    Bipolar disorder and mental health support groups allow students to safely share experience and support. Learners may also access support groups and advocacy groups for individuals struggling with mental health.


Off-Campus Support Services

  • Mental Health Centers

    These centers serve clients with disorders and issues such as depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder. Mental health centers typically employ licensed medical professionals who can provide psychiatric treatment.

  • Online Support Communities

    Since psychiatric medications and therapy can prove costly, some students seek free online peer support. Some trained mental health providers also offer online resources.

  • Apps

    Some individuals with bipolar disorder use online apps to track and report their moods and bipolar symptoms. These apps can help learners notice and head off bipolar episodes.

  • In-Person Support Groups

    Many college towns and major cities feature community-based support groups for people struggling with various issues. The Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance maintains a directory of local support groups.

  • Treatment Locators

    Students seeking treatment for bipolar disorder can utilize tools such as the treatment locator from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.


Treatment for Bipolar Disorder



Bipolar disorder treatments include talk therapy, psychiatric medication, and holistic practices. The following list highlights common treatment options for bipolar disorder. Individuals should seek the guidance of a specialized doctor when creating and implementing treatment plans.

  • Medication

    Individuals with bipolar I typically need medication to manage manic episodes. Many learners with bipolar I and II also use psychiatric medication to manage symptoms such as depression and anxiety. Medications usually include mood stabilizers, antipsychotics, and antidepressant-antipsychotic medications. Some individuals with bipolar disorder take antidepressants and antianxiety medications.

  • Psychotherapy

    Talk therapy can help individuals process thoughts and emotions to better understand themselves and their condition. Psychotherapy features many approaches and fields, including interpersonal therapy, cognitive behavior therapy, and family therapy. Psychotherapists may focus on an area such as psychodynamics, dialectical behavioral therapy, or humanistic psychotherapy. Some therapists use a multi-mode or eclectic combination of therapeutic methods, principles, and approaches.

  • Education

    A complex condition, bipolar disorder usually requires mental health education to understand. Learning about the origins, symptoms, patterns, and triggers of this disorder can help students anticipate and seek timely treatment for manic and depressive cycles. Education can help individuals with bipolar disorder manage this challenging disorder.


Tips for Managing Bipolar Disorder



The body’s overall health significantly influences brain function and mood issues. Sticking to routines can help students with bipolar disorder manage the symptoms. However, rapid or extreme mood fluctuations can make practicing healthy habits difficult. Many individuals with bipolar disorder struggle with insomnia, addiction, and social isolation. Obtaining social and medical support in the following areas can help learners with bipolar disorder feel better and make healthy choices.

Avoid Drugs and Alcohol
Mind-altering substances can trigger or exacerbate many mental health conditions, including bipolar disorder. Untreated bipolar disorder depression often leads to substance abuse, which makes the bipolar condition even less manageable.
Get Enough Sleep
Essential to overall health, decent sleep tends to reduce mental health symptom frequency and severity. Lack of sleep worsens mental health and can trigger depression and anxiety for bipolar sufferers. Unmanaged manic episodes make getting enough sleep difficult.
Find a Good Support Network
The difficulty of managing bipolar disorder sometimes leads to social isolation, which can worsen mental health issues. Without a good support network, bipolar individuals may feel significant loneliness, depression, and anxiety.
Stick With a Routine
Manic, hypomanic, and depressive symptoms can increase impulsive behavior. Depression may also interfere with motivation. These issues can make maintaining a routine challenging. Establishing and following a solid routine helps individuals with bipolar disorder stay grounded and on track.
Eat Well
A healthy diet improves brain function and overall well-being. Consuming too much sugar and unhealthy food may worsen bipolar symptoms and lead to blood sugar instability and obesity.

How to Talk About Bipolar Disorder in College

Expert Advice

Dr. Jennifer “Christy” Thrash

Q. How should students tell their friends about their disorder? How should they tell their professors?

Unfortunately our society continues to struggle with stigma and misconceptions when it comes to mental illnesses. Highly educated professors are not exempt from having such biases. Therefore, college students should be cautious when deciding who to confide in. They should wait until they have gotten to know their professors, academic advisors, and new college friends fairly well.

Before revealing too much personal information, have a few conversations about mental illness in general and see how they react. It’s a good sign if they talk in a positive way about a family member or close friend who struggles with a psychiatric illness. It’s also important to remain in close contact with supportive family and friends from home.

Q. What are some of the most important things parents and friends need to know in order to help someone with bipolar disorder?

Individuals who have bipolar disorder cycle through episodes of severe depression and manic/hypomanic periods. These are interspersed with periods of normalcy that can last several months, even without medication or treatment.

If family or friends notice that a student is experiencing emotional or behavioral problems that represent a noticeable change from their usual behavior, or if they see an escalation in such problems to the point that they interfere with the student’s daily functioning, then they should intervene immediately and get the student psychiatric help. It does not matter if the student has a big exam or project that’s due. If it’s a crisis, take them to the nearest hospital emergency room. Call 9-1-1 if they refuse to go.

You must put their mental health needs first, because there could be serious long-term consequences if they do not get their bipolar symptoms under control as soon as possible. To put things in perspective, the lifetime risk of suicide in individuals with bipolar disorder is 15 times higher than the general population.

Q. Let's assume a student knows something is wrong but isn't sure what. Are there any signs that might point them in the direction of bipolar disorder?

Unfortunately there are no definitive signs that an individual has bipolar disorder. The disorder is cyclical in nature and often mimics other mental health disorders. A person who has severe depression may have bipolar disorder or they may have a major depressive disorder. Individuals who exhibit mania (decreased need for sleep, racing thoughts, fast speech) or psychosis (hearing or seeing things that are not there, bizarre ideas) may have bipolar disorder, but they could also have schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, or substance-induced mania.

If a college student is struggling with severe depression, suicidal thoughts, substance abuse, lack of sleep, racing or bizarre thoughts, or any other emotional or behavioral issue that is causing major problems, they should seek psychiatric help immediately. If a crisis occurs after business hours or on weekends, they should have a friend or family member take them to the nearest hospital emergency room for an evaluation.

Bipolar disorder is difficult to diagnose. The student will need to give a very thorough psychiatric history, including specific dates and durations of their symptoms and a family history of mental illness. It may take more than one visit to reach an accurate diagnosis.

Dr. Jennifer 'Christy' Thrash

Dr. Jennifer “Christy” Thrash is a licensed psychologist in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Her passion is helping adolescents and young adults cope with mental illness and life transitions. She has treated teens and adults with anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar mood disorders since 2000.

Additional Resources

The following resources and organizations support students with bipolar disorder. Learners can access overviews of bipolar disorder, research, and support. Some of the organizations below perform advocacy and provide public education on mental illness.

  • Active Minds This nonprofit organization supports mental health awareness and sucide prevention. Active Minds encourages young adults to share openly about their mental health. The organization offers information and programs that help students understand and treat mental health issues.
  • Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance This national organization delivers education and support to people with mood disorders. DBSA performs advocacy work, connects individuals to support groups, and offers education and volunteer opportunities.
  • International Bipolar Foundation This foundation advocates for and supports people struggling with bipolar disorder. IBPF offers programs and information that educate the public and raise awareness regarding this mental health condition.
  • MedlinePlus-Bipolar Disorder This online information service from the National Library of Medicine features a useful page on bipolar disorder. The page provides an overview of bipolar disorder, along with relevant research and resources.
  • Mental Health America-Bipolar Disorder Since 1909, this community-based nonprofit has worked to address mental health needs. MHA provides an overview of bipolar disorder symptoms, causes, and treatments. The website also features information on how this disorder impacts specific populations.

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