You Can't Get a Degree If You Have Bipolar Disorder - Myth
When I got diagnosed, I was attending a university and on my way to getting a bachelors of computer science. I was a pretty fastidious student in my first year and my grades were excellent. But before I knew what a mental illness was, I became sick and my grades dropped. It was only some time later that it became clear it was because I had bipolar disorder.
"You should drop out of school; you're never going to be able to finish your degree."
Getting a University Degree is Hard
Getting a university degree isn't easy; if it was, everyone would do it. So given that it's difficult for even the mentally well, it's understandable that it would be particularly difficult for the mentally ill. It's OK. Life poses challenges, pretty much all the time.
Accept it's going to be difficult. Accept it's going to be more difficult for you than for others. That's just how it's going to be.
Getting a University Degree Isn't Impossible
However, just because it's hard, that doesn't make it impossible. I do hard things all the time as do we all. Writing books? Hard. Having kids? Hard. Marriage? Hard. Bipolar? Hard. We're wired for the hard stuff.
How to Tackle University with a Mental Illness
1. Drop classes - you're not going to have the same bandwidth as everyone else so stop pretending that you do. There's no shame in saying you need to take a bit longer to complete your degree. There's no shame in making modifications to something really difficult to make it more doable for you. If you burn yourself out on classes, you're not going to graduate and you're going to sacrifice your mental health.
2. Take easy electives - yes, it's possible you really want to take advanced math-o-biochemistry-computerology but try to give yourself a break and take introduction to the modern sit-com instead. You'll thank me come midterms.
3. Talk to your professors; get extensions - talk to your professors early. When you see a storm a-coming, that is the time to talk to them - not after you're in a full-blown episode. Most professors are very understanding and will make reasonable modifications to due dates and make-up exams if you just talk to them openly about it. Get a doctor's note if you need it.
4. Prioritize school; work harder - you're probably going to have to do more work for lesser grades. Just accept that. But if you really want to go to school and you really want good grades, then spend every moment you can devoted to that pursuit. If a degree is really what you want, act like it.
I Got a Degree. I Have Bipolar Disorder.
I managed to get my bachelors of computer science. I had to go to school 6 semesters back-to-back (no summers off) and it took me a year longer than it should have, but I did it. I can't promise everyone can do that, but I can say that when you really want something, you need to find inventive ways to help you get it.
Having a disability isn't so much about closing doors as much as it is about redefining how they look.
Tracy, N. (2011, September 15). You Can't Get a Degree If You Have Bipolar Disorder - Myth, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, August 18 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/breakingbipolar/2011/09/you-cant-get-a-degree-if-you-have-bipolar-disorder-myth
Author: Natasha Tracy
I had my first bout with mania in 2011. It cost me my job. At this point I decided to go back to school again. I believe for a 3-4 year period I was in a hypomanic to manic state. In that time I finished a Bachelors, got my masters, began grad work at an ivy league college, completed a graduate level certificate, became certified in several other subjects, & I'm considering going on to a doctorate.
It took me 8 years to get an associates from a community college. It took me 3 years to complete the rest. Since then the mania has subsided & I can't seem to get the ambition back to complete my course work. So I'm proof that Bipolar sufferers do have a hard time completing school, but in the right circumstances that energy can be harnessed. Had I never had my episode I'd never have lost my job, but I'd also not be considering pursuing a doctorate degree.
Natasha, what your doctor said to you about dropping out of school is just so wrong I don't where to even start. There would be more of a psychological toll for NOT finishing the degree. Sorry, but I think the doctor is a hack and glad that you didn't listen to that sort of thing - it's totally unprofessional. Thanks for being such an inspiration!
I just want to help her and she is very anxious to "Become" someone. She feels like "Nothing" and wants to succeed in life somehow.
She just does not know where to start. I live in Michigan and she lives in Maryland with her "Boyfriend"....
So, I don't know where to start as far as what colleges are willing to do to help people in this situation.
Now I am going to turn 34 this year and need four more classes to finish my Master's Degree. Of course I still would never take four classes at once! I take two at a time and have learned to get As! my undergrad was Religious Studies with a minor in Asian Studies, and my Master's is Writing/English literature.
Intelligence and creativity are not linked to bipolar (or any other mental illness), but they are linked to each other!
I took a little longer going through undergrad, partly due to illness and partly due to me pursuing two degrees. I earned a BA and a BS with well over 130 credits in four and a half years. The only illness I was diagnosed with during this time was depression, my second semester, and even then my GPA did not drop below a 3.5. School was always easy for me in terms of learning of the material. And my parents taught us an awesome work ethic. When I was in school, <b>all</b> I did was school.
I had adhd, untreated, undiagnosed and my depression was actually secondary to that. But see, combined with my work ethic and intelligence, the adhd and ocd balanced each other out.
Then I taught for a couple years before going back to school again, this time for my Master's in Education. That, was a lot of work. But if it's interesting, I like it! And this was all pre-diagnosis, pre-treatment.
I attribute my success to my work ethic, and I am very fortunate (usually) to have the degree of intelligence that I do. It means I can pretty much learn or do whatever I want.
I agree. I love school; I love learning. I enjoy being intellectually stimulated. My intelligent adhd and bipolar brain need it, otherwise I would just be spinning with no direction.
I feel being open to teachers with my illness I get mixed feedback they tend to judge me straight away as lazy. I have even had a teacher say in class if you can’t handle the stress then this course isn’t for you, I feel that was directed at me. That doesn’t mean some aren’t very helpfully with extra time extent deadline and exams.
I just want to say it isn’t easy living with this illness especially when there’s a big stigma surrounding mental illness. I feel if this world accepts people with mental illness there would be a lower limit of suicide rate.
It sounds to me like you just need to work the system a bit more in your favour. For example, why take five course when you know you can't handle it? Why not take three, or two? Focus on what you _can_ do instead of trying to meet a bar that's nor reasonable right now.
Get a note from you psychiatrist when you need accommodations at school. A teacher can't override that. Use your school's student union as a backup. They usually have an ombudsman who can help if you have a dispute with a professor.
When I went through school I had to pair down classes and it took me long to get my degree, but I got one. That never would have happened if I would have tried taking five courses a semester though.
And try to find a support group as well. They can help you, emotionally, through some of these challenges.
I know it feels like you're hitting a brick wall and that you'll never conquer it, but that's not true, just try to find your limits and work within them. Maybe correspondence classes are for you, so you can take longer to finish them. Think outside of the norm. You can make it, you just need to adjust your plan.
I really don't know how I am going to manage this for the rest of my life. In high school and as a freshman teachers tended to be more compassionate, but now, they don't seem to care or want to make accommodations. Facing discrimination and rejection after seeking guidance and help is extremely heartbreaking a discouraging.
I agree, a substantial amount of teacher's aren't understanding; only one teacher out of five this semester seems willing to accommodate.
How does one with bipolar disorder become successful in a world where everyone expects you to function normally. Employers and Education professionals have a general negative judgmental attitude towards people who need 'time'. I know a lot of them think we are lazy, irresponsible and can't get our shit together when in reality we try try try so so effing hard but end up facing an episode, not 'success'.
Look, I want to teach High School English, but how will I ever get there at this rate. No one around me understands that I'm not a regular person, I can't get there as fast as everyone else, like they expect. Right now it doesn't seem like I'm going to get there, and it doesn't seem like a life-long struggle with this is worth it. And it's the most terrible because I want to impact a kid, provide support when they can't get it at home, like my teacher's in high school did for me. I have the immense capacity to love and empathize but I feel I may never reach my goals to give this to the adolescents that need it. I can't succeed in school, I'm unreliable at work---will I ever figure it out? I just really need some help, all the therapy, all the meds,and all the lifestyle changes, and I feel It always comes back and KABOOM.
Your sister's experience at Columbia sounds awful, incredibly discriminatory, and unfair. It reminds me of an article I read by a Yale alum who was forced to leave Yale after being hospitalized for bipolar disorder. http://www.esmewang.com/2011/02/why-i-left-yale-mental-illness-higher-education/
That's the reason why one should never voluntarily tell a professor or employer. I have found that some people, if they know something about mental health, can be very compassionate, while others are ignorant and discriminating - even if they are highly accomplished professionals in their fields. Mental health is not well understood. You never know which you'll get. Even those who you think would understand might treat you very different afterwards. In my opinion, it's not worth the risk.
Does Columbia have an Office of Accessible Education? It might have been better to go there rather than to a dean.
Have read a few of your articles on the bipolar burble and here, and you are an awesome writer! I identify very strongly with many of your articles, but more importantly you tell it like it is, you write to the point (digging the giagantic headers) and you also write critically and intellectually. You don't just quote some imaginary studies and say that research has shown this without actually having read the research articles yourself.
I think I will be reading more of your blog in the future, I just had to express how impressed I was by your writing...
So many people think that a "mental" disorder is an "intelligence" disorder, which is so unfair to us. It's that perception that keeps people from disclosing their disease for fear of being labeled "less than".
Yes, I have bipolar, have been hospitalized twice and have taken meds for over 10 years. But I also have an English degree from an Ivy League university, an MBA from a top-10 program, and a 6-figure job with a promising career in marketing. I have lots of things that the average person doesn't, some really good, some really crappy, but things even out in the end.
Perhaps it was harder for me to get through school and work than for people without my disease. Maybe it was easier for me because I'm smarter than the average person. Whatever. Nothing worth having isn't worth working hard for.
While I do not have BP, I suffer from it through my son.
But I have also known a few psychotherapists with Bi-Polar, and many very good, competent and successful. They have all finished at least a master's level training. The only caveat to their professional life is that they occasionally take "vacations" on recommendation from their colleagues that know about their condition and help them get help when they need it. As a professor I teach Intro to Psych to about 250 student each semester and there is an average of 3-4 students who admit to being bi-polar in each class (for about 18 students each semester.) I give the message that you gave here to every class.
"drop classes - you’re not going to have the same bandwidth as everyone else so stop pretending that you do."
I had just decided today to drop a class and will now take another extra year to finish my degree. Which doesn't sound like much on its own, but I have had to do this several times over the years. Will end up taking me 10 years to finish (along with having 3 children)
I should have never enrolled in full time this semester, yet I thought if i can just swing it this way and push thru???? The only pushing thru I'm doing is to the other side of life.
Yes, I will stop pretending :)
Over the next 38 years, I went back to college seven different times. Some semesters, I actually completed a course; but mostly I just quit going to classes, either so manic that I came up with a “grander” project or so depressed that I didn’t care about school anymore.
Five years ago, I was diagnosed (rapid cycling) and began medication and psychotherapy - and went back to school for the eighth time.
I can only handle two classes at a time; and even then, it’s been very difficult. One semester, I had to completely withdraw from the University. Four times, I stopped going to one of the two classes because of the stress, unwilling to talk to the professor about it. Of course, I failed those classes. Three times I said: “That’s it. I’m never going back.” But, when the next semester rolled around, I’d be back at it again.
If I had been following the four tips above, and many other ones that have been suggested (including registering with the Office of Disabilities Services), maybe it would not have been so difficult.
As you’ve probably guessed by now, I’m 61 years old. After this semester, I have only one more class to go! At this point, getting the degree is not about getting a job. It’s about not giving up.
This year, so far so good. I'm feeling a lot better than I did last year, and I'm pumped for actually finishing and going out into the workforce. I just hope that they see that too.
Here's the point, I suppose: if you have any kind of mental disability and you're attending a prestigious university that is more concerned with enhancing its reputation than with furthering your education, don't be forthcoming with them. They will attempt to penalize you for it.
So I know that anyone can earn their degree.
That being said, I could seriously relate to much of what is said in this article.
I wish I had known these things sooner, it would have helped.
Thank you, Natasha, for writing such an informative article to help others.
"...my creative mind is a response to living with bipolar disorder not a symptom. My intelligence the same. There is no correlation between it and this sucky illness."
Brilliant way of saying that. I've thought the same thing.
Good to hear you're doing so well at school. But you will have to leave sometime ;)
With that said. I agree with Natasha it is all about pacing yourself. I have a business school diploma, chefs papers and I am currently going to school again.
The key is not to load your plate too high and to communicate with administrators and instructors.
I failed every test until I had the balls to say I cannot do tests and pass with other people in the room, I am too distracted. Now in a quiet near dark room I ace most tests.
I had a Doctor tell me I should not quit smoking, the risks of me becoming unstable was riskier then smoking(seriously). I quit and remained intact.
I think if anyone wants education they should go for it. I love going to school, I don't want to leave.
Well, it would have probably been the best dogs playing poker ever.
Just an FYI, I've written about the research, and we don't skew brighter than average, actually less so in many regards. Some of us are high-functioning, some not so. http://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/breakingbipolar/2011/06/are-people-with-bipolar-disorder-more-intelligent/
And see, I don't think we're great. I just think we're people.
As a rule, bipolars skew brighter than average and are frequently very high functioning. That said, I like your final sentence very much. Expect speed bumps and adjust for them, your path to greatness is likely to be off the main road.