By: Greg Walshaw
I was finishing my first year of a Master’s program when things started to change. The first time I stayed up all night to work on a paper, I thought nothing of it: the paper had to get done, and this was the cost of getting it done. I remember getting through the next day without crashing, even going out with friends in the evening. I still thought nothing of it. I was enjoying my program, having been out of school for eight years. It was stimulating and invigorating, so I didn’t question why I seemed to have extra energy. But then, little day to day things started to annoy and irritate me, and then that irritability turned into mild paranoia. When the hallucinations returned, I knew what was going on: mania was coming back. It had been ten years since my last episode. I went back on medication and an appointment was made to refer me to a psychiatrist.
The mania was arrested before it could get too severe, but I wondered what this would mean for my studies. Would I be able to do as well as I had in that first year? Would I be able to get through it at all? How was I going to juggle course work, a job, and bipolar?
I had started the first year as a full-time student, but quickly realized this was not sustainable with a half-time job and a commute to contend with. So I switched to part-time in the winter. When bipolar symptoms returned, I knew I would be remaining part-time. One of the first things I did when I returned to school was to have a talk with my program advisor. The next was to pay a visit to accessibility services. An accessibility advisor was assigned, and a meeting scheduled. There was paperwork to fill out, including paperwork for my doctor.
Accommodations were put in place to assist with my studies. I haven’t actually used any of them yet, but there’s great piece of mind in knowing they are available. It has been a challenge, and I’ve had to work hard, but I’ve been able to maintain the same GPA I had built when I was symptom-free. Juggling the demands of academia and manic or depressive symptoms is not easy, so it is important to know what you can manage and what you can’t. For example, I’ve had depressive symptoms for the past two years and it can be hard to get going in the morning. I don’t push myself in the mornings, but do make sure to schedule time for school work in the afternoons and evenings. I try to do extra work on good days to make up for the days where nothing seems to work.
If you are a student with bipolar, consider registering with accessibility services (or disability services) at your institution. It can take several weeks at some universities to navigate the process, so it’s best to register early and before you have a specific problem with a class.
To get an idea of what accessibility services might be able to do, check out the website for Tulane University’s Goldman Center for Student Accessibility at https://accessibility.tulane.edu/.
They have a short video on the page called “Great Minds Think Differently” that is worth checking out.
Common accommodations are extra time for assignments and exams, a note-taking service, or extra time to finish a degree. Accessibility services might also be able to assist you in avoiding academic penalties if you have to drop a class or classes owing to severe episodes or hospitalizations. They should also be able to point you towards peer support groups and other mental health supports both on and off campus.
The purpose of accommodations is to level the playing field between those with disabilities and those without. As such, accommodations are dependent on the needs of each individual student. You should expect confidentiality to accompany your accommodations. Instructors can know what accommodations you need, but not why you need them. I was comfortable telling my program advisor about my diagnosis, but I might not trust every instructor I take a class from to the same degree.
Bipolar disorder and university can work together! It might take a little extra time, and a little extra work, but most institutions should be able to offer some help along the way. Get to know what’s available before you really need it.