Why study may be important to your quality of life
Study can be personally valuable and can also lead to better employment later in life in the general population.1 Study at the post-secondary level can include online programs, community colleges, universities, vocational schools and apprenticeships.2 You may want to study full-time or part-time, depending on your circumstances. You may also want to choose a supported education (SE) approach, which means getting extra assistance that’s designed to increase your success in your studies.
Study also relates to social benefits1. Education gives you the opportunity to learn about fresh ideas that can open new doors of opportunity, such as widening your interests in hobbies, introducing you to new social groups, or creating connections in your community through volunteer work or clubs. It can help you build confidence in your own mind and abilities.
There isn’t a lot of research about study and bipolar disorder, and not a lot of agreement in what the research studies have found. Some show that people with bipolar disorder reach higher levels of education than people in the general population, while others show that people with bipolar disorder reach lower levels of education. Another found that people with bipolar disorder have completed the same level of education, on average, as people in the general population1. However, people with bipolar disorder who had an early onset of symptoms or who struggled with rapid cycling or recurring depressive episodes (more than 4 a year) were found to have the greatest challenges in getting an education1. Even so, educational achievement and the ability to manage one’s illness are mentioned as key features of employment success at the professional and managerial levels.3
The symptoms of bipolar disorder can heavily impact your ability to study and complete coursework – it’s difficult to stay focused when you’re in the middle of a manic or hypomanic episode. For a while, you may be able to throw maximum effort into a task, but pretty soon other activities will become distracting and racing thoughts can make you lose your focus on the task at hand. Depressive episodes can be equally disabling, when it becomes hard to concentrate on coursework, or even to care about it. But even when mood is stable, people living with bipolar disorder can struggle with cognitive symptoms, which may affect ability to succeed at school.4,5 These can include problems paying attention, remembering, processing information, solving problems, or planning [see Cognition section for more information].
As well, the social lifestyle often encouraged among college and university students can be a major challenge to anyone! But for people who have bipolar disorder, staying up late studying or partying, experimenting with recreational drugs or alcohol and eating at irregular times are a recipe for unhealthy changes in your mood (or ‘mood dysregulation’). For example, "goal attainment" (like completing that big paper or pulling an all-nighter to prepare for a huge exam) has been identified as a trigger for mania6, so finding the right balance between your study habits and keeping a stable mood is important.
How you can take action
Take charge of your self-care behaviours. Taking care of yourself will go a very long way in being able to cope with your studies. Keeping regular routines is especially important. One of the most useful things you can do for yourself is to try to wake up and go to bed at similar times each day – even on the weekends. Making sure that you eat regular meals is also key. It can be helpful to schedule study sessions at the same times each day, too – similar to the routine people have when they’re at a stable job. Lastly, be very careful about alcohol and recreational drugs and try to stay away from them, even if others are using them with few obvious problems. People with bipolar disorder are vulnerable to the effects of recreational drugs and alcohol, both in triggering mood episodes and in negative interactions with medications. You probably need to be a lot more careful with recreational substance use than many of your peers, as the stakes are higher for you.
Make use of on-campus mental healthcare providers. On-campus healthcare providers understand the stresses that come along with being a student. They can help you make arrangements to meet your school responsibilities that take into account your bipolar disorder (called “academic accommodations”). They can also stand up for you if challenges come up that may require negotiations with professors or deans. Most campuses have counseling services and student health clinics to provide access to doctors, nurses and counselors. They also may provide groups to teach skills to help you manage your bipolar disorder more successfully as a student. Healthcare providers can also help you to balance how you keep your mood steady with still being able to do your best thinking. For example, you may want to work with a healthcare provider to find medications that keep your mood stable but limit side effects, like drowsiness, that could affect your studies.
Find out about your educational program’s policies and services. Do some research into what your school can do for you – and do it before you even think you need to know! Most campuses have an office that provides assistance for students with disabilities (such as mental health conditions) that can help you get academic accommodations. Academic accommodations could include assignment extensions, test-taking away from the classroom environment or learning assistance as needed. Typically you’ll need to register with this office before asking for any accommodations from your instructors. On-campus organizations such as these can also usually work together with your healthcare providers as needed so that you can get the best help from your team of supports.
Find a support group on campus. Dealing with the challenges of bipolar disorder can be less stressful if you have the reassurance of others. A support group can understand your need for a stable lifestyle and could even help you to identify the onset of mood symptoms7. They can give you a sense of belonging and connection to your peers, whether you choose a larger group or a one-on-one counseling session. Universities and colleges typically offer one-on-one peer counseling; often these programs are run by students. Sharing your struggles with another student, who’s trained to be non-judgmental and empathetic and to keep your information confidential, is an alternative to the group support experience. There may even be options to join online groups, if that is your preference.
Address stigma. You may experience stigma around having a mental health condition and the issue of self-disclosure – telling people you have bipolar disorder (see Self-esteem section). Typically, bipolar disorder first appears in the young adult years when many people enter post-secondary education8. Increasingly, campus administrators, educators and students are taking a proactive stance on discussing mental health issues and supporting students’ mental health. Your campus may have a mental health awareness club or similar organization that draws a wide range of students. You could get involved in a group that seeks to end mental health stigma and disclose your bipolar disorder, or choose to help in demystifying mental health issues and educating others without revealing your own condition. Research about what happens after self-disclosure of a mental health condition shows different results, but some positive results include having more eligibility for services, increased social support and a sense of empowerment.9,10
Get involved! Connect with other students through study groups, shared interests, organizations and clubs on campus or even the online campus community. Students who are engaged with their peers and professors have a better educational experience than those who aren’t.11 As well, make contact with your professors, even if you aren’t having any academic difficulties. This can make it easier for you to approach a professor later if and when you have questions about the course topics or want study tips.