Q. How should students tell their friends about their disorder? How should they tell their professors?
A. 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. Have a few conversations about mental illness in general before revealing too much personal information 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?
A. Individuals who have bipolar disorder cycle through episodes of severe depression and manic/hypomanic periods, and these are interspersed with periods of normalcy that can last several months, even without medication or treatment. If family or friends notice their student is experiencing emotional or behavioral problems that represent a noticeable change from their usual behavior, or they see an escalation in such problems to the point that they are interfering with the student’s daily functioning, then they should intervene immediately and get them psychiatric help. It does not matter if the student has a big exam or project that’s due. Take them to the nearest hospital emergency room if it’s a crisis. 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?
A. Unfortunately there are no definitive telltale signs that an individual has bipolar disorder because the disorder is cyclical in nature and it 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 (e.g., 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 them major problems, they should seek psychiatric help immediately. If a crisis occurs after business hours or on weekends, they should have a friend, or a family member take them to the nearest hospital emergency room for an evaluation.
Bipolar disorder is difficult disorder 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 before an accurate diagnosis can be reached. It may take more than one visit.