A successful student newly diagnosed with bipolar, I was initially unprepared for the transition to college. Here’s what can help you prepare for this exciting next step.
Tips for Transitioning to College Life
As an incoming freshman, or first-year college student, I was entirely unprepared for the transition from high school to university life. I had never even seen lecture halls so enormous. And I was terrified of my roommate, who seemed to constantly be hovering over me. One thing I was prepared for was the rigor of the curriculum, as I had taken advanced placement (AP) and honors courses. But the idea of taking care of myself without my parents there to act as backup support was so overwhelming that I could hardly stand it.
And then, of course, there was bipolar disorder. When my doctor diagnosed me at the end of my senior year of high school, I had no idea how my manic and depressive moods would consume me during college: that they would make it impossible to eat and sleep and get my assignments done for all my classes. Eventually, I realized that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to try to start college at an enormous public university literary thousands of miles away from any support I had ever developed.
I have learned a lot since then. Here are some tips I have developed for things you might want to consider doing as you transition into college.
#1 Take Orientation Seriously
Most colleges have orientations for incoming college students at the beginning of each semester. During these orientations, they will teach you how to register for your classes, take placement tests, find out who your academic advisor is, and so on. This is essential information for any new student, so don’t blow it off.
I also met several new classmates who became fast friends as college progressed. You’re all in this together: none of you have been first-semester students at this college before, so you should take advantage of the opportunity and soak up all the knowledge and tips the upperclassmen have to offer. Universities go to great lengths to ensure that orientations are helpful experiences for students. Because bipolar presents its own challenges, knowing this basic information at the outset will only help you as you make this big change.
#2 Get to Know Your Academic Advisor
Academic advisors are great resources who can illuminate your road to earning your college degree. As a new student, you may have a more general or “exploratory” advisor who will help you plan a curriculum of general education courses and eventually declare a major. When you progress through college and determine which field of study you would like to embark upon, you will likely be assigned an academic advisor. You will meet with this person to develop a plan for all the classes you will take in your major, to ensure that you are meeting all of the requirements necessary to graduate with your degree or certification upon completion.
The question of whether or not to disclose your bipolar disorder diagnosis with your academic advisor is a personal one. It might be helpful but, of course, you don’t have to. With college privacy laws, your advisor can’t disclose this information to anyone else: not even your professors, for example. My advisor was integral to getting through college with bipolar. She got to know me very well and provided excellent advice and feedback about which classes would be helpful, and when to take them. For example, I was studying sociology, and my advisor knew which statistics class I should take. She also helped me transfer the credits I had earned from courses I took at other colleges. We are still in touch, eight years after I graduated from college.
#3 Make a Mental Health Plan Before You Go to College
I think the biggest mistake I made concerning college was that I went in without a plan or safety net. Considering that I had just been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, you would think that continuing to take my pills would be a priority for me. But I did not even have an appointment with a psychiatrist or therapist when I started my college career. My mood breakdown inevitably came, and I was thousands of miles away from the doctor who had diagnosed me and understood my symptoms the best.
There are mental health resources on every campus, and they run the spectrum from extraordinarily amazing to not-so-great. There is one commonality between most of the campus mental-health services: they don’t have the resources or manpower to support students with major mental health conditions (like bipolar) for a lengthy period of time. Campus Health Services can be great when you are first starting out or are having a mental health crisis.
Maybe two or three weeks into my first semester of college, I was in one of those crises. I went to Campus Health, not knowing what to expect, and within a matter of hours, I found myself signing into the hospital. Luckily, the doctors at the hospital connected me with an excellent outpatient psychiatrist.
If you are already seeing a psychiatrist in your hometown, ask for referrals. This is a process you would ideally begin at the start of the summer before you start college.
Connect with a Counselor
While medications are often an essential component of bipolar treatment, they are only one pillar of treatment for bipolar disorder (medication, talk therapy, and lifestyle). For this reason, I would also suggest securing a therapist who can help you cope with the ups and downs typically associated with the college experience. This transition is a major one, and it will help so much to have someone to talk to. You aren’t just dealing with issues like classes and roommates. If you have been coping with bipolar, some of your regular symptoms (e.g., mania and depression) may rev up. And you will want (or need) support for that.
Know What to Do in a Crisis
Another vital part of the mental health plan is to know what to do in a crisis. I already mentioned Campus Health. You will want to know which symptoms are problematic and require immediate medical attention. This can include experiencing dangerous thoughts and/or urges, extreme anxiety, and paranoia.
It will help to know whom to reach out to in the event of a crisis, such as a psychiatrist and a therapist. Also, consider the following questions:
When would you like your parents, guardians, and/or emergency contacts to be notified?
Or would you not like them to be notified at all?
Which hospitals in the area accept your insurance?
What is the procedure for getting admitted to the hospital?
#4 Get Organized
Organization is a big part of getting settled in college. Some strategies can be pretty straightforward; others may require some maintenance.
For example, I would recommend that you invest in a pill organizer. So, instead of having your pill bottles clunking around, you have a go-to spot where you keep all of your medications. This way, you will also have a visual reminder that you have taken all of your pills for the day (or that you still have to take them), and that you may need to call your pharmacy for a refill.
Personal Planner or Calendar
You may also want to consider getting a planner or calendar, whether a physical, paper planner or a digital one that you can access from a smartphone or computer. With a planner, you can keep track of everything that is happening in your life: when you need to be in lectures/classes, doctors’ appointments, when your medications need to be refilled, and when assignments are due.
I like to break big tasks down into chunks. For example, if I have to write a term paper that is due at the end of the semester, I might settle on self-imposed deadlines for the research, brainstorming, outlining, and writing of the paper. It helps so much to be organized because it cuts out the stress of panicking when you realize that a major assignment is due in a day. Bipolar and stress do not mix! You will feel much less stressed out and overwhelmed if you break things down—and your brain will thank you, too!
#5 Use the Mental Health Resources at Your College
Every college is chock-full of resources. You just have to find them. For example, at my undergraduate college, I immediately registered with the Disability Resource Center. I had the same access consultant from my first year until I graduated, and she helped me adapt to college with my bipolar. I often talked to her from the hospital, and she was able to reach out to my professors and get medical withdrawals or incompletes when I needed them.
At the beginning of each semester, she sent a letter to all my professors, informing them that I had a disability (but she didn’t mention bipolar). My professors worked with me on deadline extensions for assignments, and I took most of my exams in a quiet room with minimal distractions and extended time.
I’ve discussed the importance of Campus Health more than once, but I would like to mention them again here because they are such an important presence in universities. In addition to helping with mental health crises, they often offer group therapy and mental health skills classes. Some groups I have seen over the years include grief/bereavement process groups, graduate-student support, and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) skills groups. These are great groups to participate in and make use of, and they are typically free or available at only a very low cost.
#6 Get Involved
Staying in your dorm room and isolating yourself will not help with bipolar depression. Sometimes, the hardest thing to do will be to leave your room and be around other people. But there are a few ways to make it feel like less of a struggle. At the beginning of each semester, many colleges have an event where you can check out the different student organizations available, all in one place. Colleges are big places, and there will be so many opportunities for you to get involved. If you miss this meeting, you can probably find much of this information online.
You can try almost anything: writing for the school newspaper or literary magazine, acting in a school play or musical, or learning ballroom dancing. The point is, trying to get involved may help with your mood. By keeping your mind open and engaged and staying creative, you can find great success in college, and beyond.
It starts with identifying our needs and communicating them clearly, so we can keep our mood stable and enjoy the festivities. We can create a holiday plan that serves us for years to come, starting now. Let’s focus on what we need and how we want to feel during every holiday season. It’s possible to...
Offering your adult children with bipolar the choice to meet your needs (or not) is a first step to creating a peaceful home. Understanding the “Hijacked House” & Bipolar Disorder My post called “The ‘Hijacked House’: Tips for Parents of Adult Children with Bipolar Disorder Living at Home” addresses questions about how to handle an adult...
Unexpected changes, a booked schedule, and excess stress have brought on brain fog. In my efforts to curb anxiety and depression, I realize the importance of downtime. Job Stress & Mood Swings How would you like having to choose between your bladder and your blood sugar every Monday through Friday? I had often heard that...
When I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I felt ashamed and, most of all, alone. Joining bphope and finding a community has made a world of difference. Being Diagnosed with Bipolar & Feeling Trapped “You have bipolar disorder type one.” After receiving my first diagnosis of bipolar disorder from the psychiatrist at the treatment...