College is a time for creating memories with friends, stressing over the five midterms you have this week, and discovering the importance of napping, right? Once I graduated from high school, college came a-knocking three months later. Among those at my door were demanding professors, well-intentioned new friends, and a dose or two of an antidepressant before bed each night. Surviving day to day while having a mental illness is challenging, and universities add their own special brand of awful to that challenge.
Navigating the highway of life with bipolar disorder has enough construction zones built in along the way, but college adds a four year long traffic stall to the mix. These blockages could prevent anyone from moving forward with their life or from graduating – especially those who are neurodivergent. Unfortunately for students with mental illness who must adhere to the rigid standards that scholarship requirements ask them to uphold, college caters to the student who can afford to pull an all-nighter without risking their carefully structured mental health.
Under my scholarship requirements, I must enroll in at least five classes per semester and maintain a 3.25 GPA. As of now, I’ve maintained this, and I attribute that to my university’s understanding surrounding my withdrawal from my second semester of college. I am very privileged in my situation because the people who dictate my scholarship requirements granted me leniency with my medical withdrawal from school. This allowed me time to recuperate in a hospital and to reenroll in classes for the next semester in order to further my education after a bad spell of depression. I do not take their allowance for granted. That situation highlighted that my school has some compassion for students with mental illness in regards to their success in an academic setting.
Unfortunately, not everyone shares a compassion for struggling students. A few months ago, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. This triggered my depression for about two weeks and prevented me from fully accomplishing what my classes required of me during that time. Luckily, I had taken advantage of my school’s Academic Achievement and Access Center so I could reach out to my professors about my disability potentially interacting with my studies. Because of this new development of depression, I requested an extension on a small assignment from one of my professors by explaining my struggles with bipolar and my mother’s recent diagnosis. He promptly rejected me. The assignment I didn’t complete was small, and I still received a good grade in the class. But this situation highlighted that compassion isn’t a required trait to be in a position of power.
On the other hand, a recent situation inspired hope and comfort for me. I volunteered to speak on a panel discussion regarding mental illness on college campuses. I shared my story with a group of about twenty to thirty people. We laughed, we cried, and we wrote encouragements for the average student on sticky notes. This group of people received my story so well and encouraged me on my journey, which really emphasized that there are students and peers around me who understand, accept, and genuinely care about my experience. This realization is crucial for me to feel comfortable as a person with bipolar.
My case is a unique one. After hearing many stories about universities requiring neuroatypical students to leave their studies behind because their brain chemistry couldn’t handle the stress of all-nighters and sometimes drove them to suicide ideation, I reflected on my position as a student in that situation. I’m not constantly experiencing suicide ideation, but I’ve been there, done that, and don’t want to go back. In all honesty, I’m incredibly lucky. I have family and friends and doctors who support my never ending parries against the relentless strikes from my bipolar. I am able to afford medication AND therapy, which are both life savers. Literally and figuratively.
As I’m growing, I’m becoming more comfortable in acknowledging my illness and sharing that reality with my peers. I’m taking advantage of my position as a (relatively) stable person who lives with bipolar by expressing my experiences to others. I want to end stigma, garner support, and rally those of us who experience mental illness so we can create a better environment for ourselves. And what better place to accomplish these goals than a university campus? Genuine care for underrepresented groups compiles in the minds of aware students on these campuses. I’m not alone in my struggle with bipolar, and my university offers me the access to different forms of support, ranging from academic to therapeutic. But my greatest, most valuable resource is my peers who live with mental illness. As dedicated challengers of stigma with individual, yet shared, experiences, we can create comfortable spaces for one another. We know the needs of people like us, and we can use our collective voice to strengthen the availability of services through our universities.
College is a time for creating memories with friends, stressing over the five midterms you have this week, and discovering the importance of napping, but it is also a time for empowering ourselves to seek fundamental changes in how we’re perceived by our neurotypical counterparts, like my previous professor. Our voices can create institutional change within our universities if they are loud enough to be heard. If you are reading this and are in a position similar to mine, my advice would be to do as much as you can to take advantage of your privileges to help your fellow peers. Support each other, make our voices heard, speak together, and diminish stigma as best you can.