Study

Why study may be important to your quality of life

Study can be personally valuable and lead to better employment later in life in the general population1. Study at the post-secondary level can include, for example, online programs, community colleges, universities, vocational schools and apprenticeships, whether part-time or full-time2. You may want to choose a “supported education” approach, an option that is available at some institutions for people with chronic conditions who require extra assistance.

Study also relates to social benefits1. Education can provide chances to learn about fresh ideas, to widen interests, introduce you to new people, or create connections in the community. It can help you build confidence in yourself and your abilities. Here, we focus upon adult and young adult education – study at the post-secondary level and ongoing studies.

Key Messages

What to know about studying:

  • Research findings mixed about impact of bipolar disorder on educational success
  • Bipolar disorder symptoms can place a toll on ability to study and do coursework
  • College and university settings can be risky environments, full of potential bipolar disorder triggers

Education and bipolar disorder

There isn’t a lot of research about education and bipolar disorder, and not a lot of agreement in what the research studies have found. Some show that people with bipolar disorder reach higher levels of education than people in the general population3, while older research suggested that that people with bipolar disorder obtain lower levels of education4. Another found that people with bipolar disorder have completed the same level of education, on average, as people in the general population1. However, people with bipolar disorder who had an early onset of symptoms or who struggled with rapid cycling or recurring depressive episodes (more than 4 per year) were found to have the greatest challenges in getting an education1. Even so, educational achievement and the ability to manage one’s illness are mentioned as key features of employment success at the professional and managerial levels5.

A woman is standing faced away from the camera in a library in Japan. She is looking through the books.

The symptoms of bipolar disorder can impact your ability to study and complete coursework. Hypomania and mania may make it difficult to stay focused and on task, and depressive episodes may be equally disabling, making it hard to concentrate or feel motivated. Cognitive symptoms including problems paying attention, remembering, processing information, solving problems, or planning can affect ability to take on educational tasks as well6,7. See the Cognition section for more information.

Finally, the lifestyle that sometimes occurs for college and university students can be a major challenge. For people with bipolar disorder, staying up late, irregular daily schedules, and using substances (e.g., drugs or alcohol) are a recipe for changes in mood (or ‘mood dysregulation’). For example, “goal attainment” (for example, pulling an all-nighter to complete a paper on time) has been identified as a trigger for mania8. Learning effective and healthy study habits is key in keeping a stable mood.

How you can take action

Take charge of your self-care behaviours. Taking care of yourself will go a very long way in being able to cope with your studies. Keeping regular routines is especially important. One of the most useful things you can do for yourself is to try to wake up and go to bed at similar times each day – even on the weekends. Making sure that you eat regular meals is also key. It can be helpful to schedule study sessions at the same times each day – similar to the routine people have when they’re at a stable job. Lastly, be cautious about substance use; you may need to be more careful with substance use than your peers are not juggling a mental health condition and school.

A young white woman sitting in a coffee shop. She is rubbing her temples and appears to be having difficulty concentrating.

Make use of on-campus mental healthcare providers. On-campus healthcare can help you make arrangements to meet your school responsibilities that take into account your bipolar disorder (called “academic accommodations”). They can also stand up for you if challenges come up that may require negotiations with instructors. Most campuses have counseling services and student health clinics to provide access to doctors, nurses and counselors. They may provide groups to teach skills to help you manage your bipolar disorder more successfully as a student. Healthcare providers can also help you to balance how you keep your mood steady with still being able to do your best thinking. For example, you may want to work with a healthcare provider to find medications that keep your mood stable but limit side effects, like drowsiness, that could affect your studies.

Find out about your educational program’s policies and services. Research what your school can do for you – and do it before you even think you need to know. Many institutions (e.g., colleges, technical schools, universities) may have offices that provide assistance for students with disabilities (such as mental health conditions) that can help you get academic accommodations, for example, assignment extensions, test-taking away from the classroom environment, or learning assistance. Typically you will need to register with this office before asking for accommodations. On-campus organizations such as these can also usually work together with your healthcare providers as needed so that you can get the best help from your team of supports.

Find a support group on campus. Dealing with the challenges of bipolar disorder can be less stressful if you have the reassurance of others. A support group can understand your need for a stable lifestyle and could even help you to identify the onset of mood symptoms9. They can give you a sense of belonging and connection to your peers, whether you choose a larger group or a one-on-one counseling session. Universities and colleges typically offer one-on-one peer counseling; often these programs are run by students. Sharing your struggles with another student, who’s trained to be non-judgmental and empathetic and to keep your information confidential, is an alternative to the group support experience. There may even be options to join online groups, if that is your preference.

A group of three men studying together and enjoying each other's company. Two of the men are black and the other is a person of colour.

Address stigma. You may experience stigma around having a mental health condition and the issue of self-disclosure – telling people you have bipolar disorder (see Self-esteem section). Typically, bipolar disorder first appears in the young adult years when many people enter post-secondary education10. Increasingly, campus administrators, educators and students are taking a proactive stance on discussing mental health issues and supporting students’ mental health. Your campus may have a mental health awareness club or similar organization that draws a wide range of students. You could get involved in a group that seeks to end mental health stigma and disclose your bipolar disorder, or choose to help in demystifying mental health issues and educating others without revealing your own condition. Research about what happens after self-disclosure of a mental health condition shows different results, but some positive results include having more eligibility for services, increased social support and a sense of empowerment11,12.

Get involved! Connect with other students through study groups, shared interests, organizations and clubs on campus or even the online campus community. Students who are engaged with their peers and professors have a better educational experience than those who aren’t13. As well, make contact with your professors, even if you aren’t having any academic difficulties. This can make it easier for you to approach a professor later if and when you have questions about the course topics or want study tips.

Take Action

How to take action:

  • Stay connected with others at school
  • Use on-campus mental health supports and services
  • Foster school-life balance
  • Establish study routines

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References

  1. Schoeyen, H.K., Birkenaes, A.B., Vaaler, A.E., et al. (2011). Bipolar disorder patients have similar levels of education but lower socioeconomic status than the general population. Journal of Affective Disorders, 129: 68-74.
  2. Ellison M. L, Rogers, E.S., & Costa, A. (2013). Supporting the education goals of young adults with psychiatric disabilities. In M. Davis (ed.), Tools for system transformation for young adults with psychiatric disabilities: State of the science papers. Worcester, MA.
  3. Vreeker, A., Boks, M. P. M., Abramovic, L., Verkooijen, S., van Bergen, A. H., Hillegers, M. H. J., Spijker, A. T., Hoencamp, E., Regeer, E. J., Riemersma-Van der Lek, R. F., Stevens, A. W. M. M., Schulte, P. F. J., Vonk, R., Hoekstra, R., van Beveren, N. J. M., Kupka, R. W., Brouwer, R. M., Bearden, C. E., MacCabe, J. H., … GROUP Investigators. (2016). High educational performance is a distinctive feature of bipolar disorder: A study on cognition in bipolar disorder, schizophrenia patients, relatives and controls. Psychological Medicine, 46(4), 807–818. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0033291715002299 
  4. Glahn, D. C., Bearden, C. E., Bowden, C. L., & Soares, J. C. (2006). Reduced educational attainment in bipolar disorder. Journal of Affective Disorders, 92(2), 309–312. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2006.01.025 
  5. Ellison, M.L., Russinova, Z., Lyass, A., & Rogers, E.S. (2008). Professionals and managers with severe mental illnesses: Findings from a national survey. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 196(3): 179-189.
  6. Knis-Matthews, L., Bokara, J., DeMeo, L., Lepore, N., & Mavus, L. (2007). The meaning of higher education for people diagnosed with a mental illness: Four students share their experiences. Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal, 31(2): 107-114.
  7. Demery R., Thirlaway, K., & Mercer, J. (2012). The experiences of university students with a mood disorder. Disability & Society, 27(4): 519-533.
  8. Johnson, S.L., Cueller, A., Ruggero, C., et al. (2008). Life events as predictors of mania and depression in Bipolar I disorder. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 117: 268-277.
  9. Federman, R. (2011). Treatment of bipolar disorder in the university student population. Journal of College Student Psychotherapy, 25: 24-38.
  10. Lejeune, S.M.W. (2011). Special considerations in the treatment of college students with bipolar disorder. Journal of American College Health, 59(7): 666-669.
  11. Martin, J.M. (2010). Stigma and student mental health in higher education. Higher Education Research & Development, 29(3): 259-274.
  12. Hyman, I. (2008). Self-Disclosure and Its Impact on Individuals Who Receive Mental Health Services. HHS Pub. No. (SMA)-08-4337 Rockville, MD. Center for Mental Health Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
  13. Salzer, M. S. (2012). A comparative study of campus experiences of college students with mental illnesses versus a general college sample. Journal of American College Health, 60(1): 1-7.