Stress is one of the major triggers of a bipolar episode and unfortunately school can be incredibly stressful and overwhelming for those who have mood disorders.
Junior high and high school were by far the roughest years of my life. I began taking my first mood stabilizer, lithium, at twelve years old. Before taking medications such as the lithium, I was a rather athletic and slender young girl. I loved to play sports and was quite flexible. As that year went on, I developed a condition called hypothyroidism which basically meant that my thyroid wasn’t functioning properly. I began gaining weight like crazy and appearing puffy. My face became rounder, my stomach grew, and I was craving carbohydrates like crazy. I became less and less active and severely depressed. Some may ask, was this due to the lithium and the other medications I was on? I think partly, yes, but also I was maturing, my hormones were changing, and maybe it was genetic or just a random phase. It should be noted though that children and teens are often more sensitive to medications and many have experienced horrific metabolic effects when taking them. The lithium (or another medication) could most certainly have affected my metabolism.
I began to experience severe depression throughout junior high and high school. My self-esteem was terrible and my moods and overall life was chaotic. As a result, I did absolutely terrible in school (I am a fairly intelligent individual, but no one could have guessed that then honestly). I missed so many days (about half of the school year or more at one point), felt overwhelmed, and incredibly unhappy almost the entire time. I was suffering, hanging on for dear life, just trying to make it through each day without calling it quits. School was really difficult for me during those years and I wasn’t sure if I’d even graduate on time due to all the issues. Some teachers and faculty members tried to understand, but no one really knew what to do or how to help. In a way, I felt like my issues and I were completely dismissed – ignoring me or threatening me became the best way to handle a teen with emotional problems. I felt as if what they tried to do only made matters worse and it only increased the stress.
I literally couldn’t function enough to even attend school. I needed frequent breaks and a lot more support and understanding from the school if I were to succeed there. I had a teacher in high school once tell me ” I think it’s just that you don’t want to come to school.” I shook my head and said “no.” He replied ” Yes, I think that’s exactly what this is.” Really?! Could he climb inside my head? How could he understand how I felt and what I could handle? I could not handle school at that time. School had put me at the end of my rope. In addition to my illness, I had trouble fitting in, talking with and keeping in touch with my peers, and taking care of myself. During high school, there were many points where I just wanted to end it all so I didn’t have to feel that way anymore. I was tired, depressed, and felt alone. There was only so much I could handle and I wasn’t even sure if I was going to make it. I honestly feel like teachers should be better educated when it comes to mental illness because there is a great deal of ignorance still out there unfortunately..
Even though school was unbelievably difficult for me back then, I did finally make it and I even ended up graduating on time. I completed a whole semesters worth of biology in one night just so I could graduate and not have to deal with this for another year. It was a huge relief…
Some may be wondering, what does my story have to do with anything? It proves that even if a situation seems impossible, it’s not always the case. Today, I am thankful I didn’t give up and I am pleased with where life is heading at this point.
As of right now, I’m back in school attending college full-time and also working part-time as well. I have kept my grades high and even was accepted into an honors society called Phi Theta Kappa. I haven’t done this well in a long while or ever. I feel at my best (or almost best) potential most times lately. Though I still struggle attending work or a class or two sometimes due to mood instability and stress, I have kept going and remained persistent. If I need a break for a while, I take a break and then I make sure I try to get back up and try again.
Tips to help students succeed in school with bipolar disorder:
- It’s important to try to stick with a routine. Go to sleep and wake up at the same times everyday. I still struggle with this occasionally as I am currently awake past 3am at the moment.
- Keep in touch with your doctors and still attend regular visits! This is quite important even if you are feeling well.
- Make sure you’re on medication that works effectively or at least makes you feel stable.
- Look into programs at your local school or college that may help ease the stress such as obtaining an IEP or disability services. Most schools should have them. Currently, I am not enrolled in a disability program or have an IEP, but I did during junior high and high school. It’s always a great plan to have just in case though.
- In college, start with as many classes as you feel comfortable with. Don’t take too much at once. Choose a concentration that interests you and that you enjoy.
- Take a class with a friend or sit near your friends. Sometimes it’s a bit more comforting when a friend is nearby.
- Go to counseling regularly to get any hard thoughts or feelings off your chest.
- Ask your teacher or professor for help. Maybe try notifying your teacher/professor of some of the issues so he/she can help you achieve your goals. Most teachers and professors are willing to listen. Most.
- Take out extra time to be good to yourself and to do the thing you enjoy.
- Make plans to look forward to (A weekend trip, going to the movies, seeing a friend or family, go for a walk in a forest preserve, etc).
- Try eating and drinking healthier. Limit the caffeine and alcohol intake, drink more water. Eat more fresh foods, less processed meals (fast foods, boxed foods, etc).
- Exercise and remember to eat breakfast! Exercise before bed and in the morning for a good sleep and motivation throughout the day. Maybe try joining a sport you like, walk to and home from school, go jogging, or dance.
- Bring a journal in case you may need to jot down your thoughts. This sometimes helps if you are experiencing a rough day.
- Try to think positively and don’t over-think.
- Remind yourself of your goals and what you want in life.
- Take time off if things get too stressful.
- Have a plan in place if an episode or an anxiety attack occurs. As I mention before, my place to go is usually the bathroom or taking a brief walk.
- Let the weekend be your time to relax and enjoy.
- Take deep breaths and remember other helpful coping techniques to help you get through the day.
- Try not to procrastinate. Complete homework and assignments a few days earlier so there is less stress. Although, I can be a major procrastinator at times. I think most students are though. 😛
- Find a study group or partner. This may help ease the stress of having to study for an exam. Sometimes working in groups is more helpful for some.
- Have people you can go to if you ever need support or help.