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Facing College

Making the grade with bipolar disorder

As if you don't have enough to handle just getting through college, wham—you get a diagnosis of bipolar disorder.

Truth is, the timing makes biological sense. The late-teen years are a vulnerable period for onset of mental illness, whether you're at college or not, because of the way the adolescent brain develops and teenagers typically behave.

Finding out you have bipolar is a blow, but it doesn't need to knock you out of the game. With lifestyle changes and plenty of support, you can totally score that diploma—especially if you're willing to take some extra time, have a plan B and, most of all, accept and accommodate the illness, says Russ Federman, PhD.

“I feel very optimistic about students' ability to lead satisfying and productive lives,” says Federman, director of Counseling and Psychological Services at the University of Virginia (UVA) and co-author of Facing Bipolar: The Young Adult's Guide to Dealing with Bipolar Disorder (New Harbinger, 2010).

“Bipolar diagnosis isn't a sentence,” Federman points out. “It's a factor [young adults] have to accept and adapt to, but don't we all have that in one form or another?”

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When the stress of college life brings on depression and anxiety, students too often struggle in secret

College was difficult for Megan H. Depression and anxiety set in during her sophomore year at Northeastern University in Boston, when she was assigned to live with three roommates. Already coping with coursework and the rigors of life at a large university, she couldn’t adjust to sharing close quarters with virtual strangers.

She moved to her own apartment after a few months, but she didn’t have a lot of friends and living off-campus made her feel even more isolated socially.

By junior year, she was routinely crying for no obvious reason. She experienced chest pains that radiated down her arm, sending her to the hospital. She started taking antidepressants prescribed by her primary care physician, but with no psychiatrist to monitor her dosage she stopped taking the pills.

In her senior year, with graduation looming, stress sent her into a depressive episode that lasted about three months.

“I don’t think most college students are prepared for what college life is like when they get there,” Megan says. “You have to balance all these different aspects of your life and it becomes overwhelming.”

Heading off to college can be exciting, but life on campus can also be a complete culture shock. It’s a time of learning how to be independent, balancing academic and social pressures, juggling new relationships, and warding off homesickness while figuring out a direction in life.

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