From one extreme to another: Students wage daily war against racing thoughts, mood swings

By Taylor Renee Wallace

At the front of the classroom, the professor is explaining something, something that Cindy Lopez is completely unable to focus on.

Her notebook is blank, and her eyes are heavy. She counts the minutes until class is over, unable to sit still. She doesn’t understand how she can be so tired and still so energetic.

On one end of the spectrum, there is mania: sleep deprivation, racing thoughts and the feeling of being out of control.

On the other, depression: anxiety, hopelessness and isolation.

“I don’t get much sleep, and it makes me irritable,” said Lopez, a science major. “That makes it hard to concentrate by itself. I get so distracted by everything that I can’t just focus on one thing. The further behind I fall in school, the harder it is to catch back up.”

If schoolwork, social pressures and other responsibilities weren’t enough to deal with in college, try adding bipolar to the mix.

Lopez explained how disorder affects her quality of learning. The insomnia, agitation and distractibility caused by the disorder can be overwhelming.

“I don’t care about anything when I’m depressed,” English major Andrew Ross said. “I just don’t feel like doing anything. I wait until the last minute to do my work. I have so much going on [when I’m depressed] that honestly, school work is the last thing on my mind.”

The extremes of bipolar mania and depression can affect the academic success of college students.

The college’s counseling center sees many students who are struggling because of both extremes.

“I can’t give a specific number because we don’t formerly diagnose students here, but a good 25 percent of students who come in here could be diagnosed with bipolar disorder,” said Jeff Quan, the college’s licensed professional counselor.

Those who have already been diagnosed as bipolar may become unstable after such a huge transition in life. For some who are genetically prone to the disorder, the introduction to a college lifestyle can trigger their first manic episode. This is essentially what diagnoses the disorder.

Campus life — the academic workload, late nights, partying — can all contribute to noticeable signs of the illness.

Individuals experiencing a manic or depressive episode often fall behind in school. Normally studious teens may have trouble passing classes. In many cases, students withdraw from their studies entirely.

However, poor academic performance is not the only impact bipolar disorder can have on students.

The harsh reality is that it is capable of ruining lives.

“There have been times in my life, before I talked to anyone about my problems, that I really didn’t want to wake up and deal with life,” Ross said. “It was just easier to stop caring about myself. I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere and nothing mattered.”

If left untreated, these feelings can lead to a higher risk of substance abuse.

Some students self-medicate with alcohol or drugs such as cocaine and marijuana. This can lead to addiction and more severe symptoms of the disorder.

If a student is already feeling hopeless, he or she may see drugs as the only way to feel better.

With the increased energy levels seen in mania, the likelihood of a person attempting suicide also increases.

However, there are steps that can be taken to ensure students’ success and health.

“The first thing I would recommend is to come talk with a professional,” Quan said. “Come to the counseling center and express your concerns. The main idea is to talk with someone. It could be your professor, it could be one of the academic advisers. It could be someone in the testing center. The key to it is not to self-diagnose, not to isolate, not to just contain everything within yourself.”

There are also other on-campus resources available to students.

“I would encourage anyone with any kind of mental health disorder who might benefit from having accommodations in the classroom to seek assistance from our Disability Service office,” Quan said. “For instance, if someone has something that impairs their learning, the Disability Service office can assist in finding and granting accommodations for that student in the classroom.”

Quan said it is important that students with bipolar disorder self-monitor so they can recognize the early signs of an episode.

Self-monitoring starts with finding a structured routine and getting a regular amount of sleep.

“We are coming up on final exams,” Quan said. “That is an additional stressor that a student may face.”

While some students may be able to bounce back from a few late nights cramming for tests and writing papers, others cannot immediately recover.

“I know a lot of college kids can wait until the last minute to write a paper or spend the entire night before a test studying with no problem,” Ross said. “It’s impossible for me to do those things without feeling exhausted and out of it for the next few days.”

Missing critical sleep can alter the state of students’ bodies and minds, further affecting their day-to-day functioning.

“[Trying to keep up with] homework is mainly the reason I don’t get much sleep in the first place,” Lopez said. “It is really hard not to get manic when I pull all-nighters a lot.”

It is possible for students to seek help in the classroom environment by talking with instructors.

“The best thing to do is to have open communication,” Quan said. “If a student knows that their disorder is interrupting their success in their class, I would recommend that the student have an open dialogue with their professor about the problems they are having.”

However, students who isolate themselves during depression or those who are convinced they don’t have a problem at all may find it hard to reach out for help.

“Some students might be hesitant because they fear how another might react to the disorder,” nursing student Holly Clary said. “If the person they are asking for help isn’t sympathetic to the person’s disorder, it might cause a major mood swing.”

This perceived lack of understanding can cause the student to become anti-social.

“There’s no shame, there’s no guilt [in seeking help],” Quan said.  “That’s a matter of taking care of yourself.”

Clary encouraged struggling students to not let stress get the better of them. She said scheduling events and making lists can help them better manage their time.

Making the grade is possible for students with bipolar disorder. Seeking help from someone they trust can help to solve problems they may not be able to solve alone.

“I’ve learned that managing my disorder while in school is possible with help from my family and teachers, even when it gets hard sometimes,” Lopez said. “I can accomplish my goals without letting bipolar disorder hold me back.”

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