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 Back to School with Bipolar Disorder

Hilary Smith, author of Welcome to the Jungle: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Bipolar But Were Too Freaked Out to Ask, shares her tips on going back to school with bipolar disorder. Hilary was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when she was 19 and graduated from UBC in 2008 with a degree in English.

For students living with bipolar disorder, the stress and excitement of “back to school” can sometimes act as a trigger for manic or depressive episodes. Here are six ways to stay cool, happy and stable during those busy first weeks of the semester.

  • Pimp Your Schedule. One of the most important things you can do in the first few weeks of school is to work out a class schedule that will work for you, not against you. If your medications make you groggy in the morning, arrange to have afternoon or evening classes instead. If you are the kind of person who gets totally wired if you have to sit still for too long, work out a schedule that involves lots of breaks between classes. Enlist the help of a guidance counselor, and you will thank yourself throughout the semester.
  • Get Your Sleep On. When you got classes, homework, sports and back-to-school partying to do, it can be tempting to say "I will sleep when I am dead (or when Igraduate)." Ditching sleep is a surefire way to spark problems with bipolar. To make sure you get enough sleep, try setting a "bedtime" alarm on your phone—then stick to it.
  • Keep a Steady Rhythm. When you switch from "summer mode" to "school mode," your rhythm of life—when you eat, sleep, exercise and see people—can change drastically. The sudden change can be stressful. To make the transition easier, try to keep some things constant, like when you eat and when you take your medications. If your "back-to-school" rhythm is too fast or intense, taper down your activities and socializing until you are comfortable.
  • Do Sweat the Small Stuff. It sounds obvious, but little things like healthy eating and exercise play a huge role in maintaining stable moods. Carve out time for yourself to go for a walk or a swim, and make sure the food you eat is supporting your moods and overall health. Little habits—like making sure you have a snack in the afternoon so you do not have a hunger crash—can make a big difference.
  • Take It Easy. At the beginning of the school year, it is easy to get overly ambitious and sign up for more classes, clubs and sports than you can really handle. Having bipolar does not mean you cannot do any of these things, but it does mean you should keep an eye on your stress levels. If you have just come out of the hospital or are still recovering from a period of depression or mania, it is especially important to give yourself a break. Decide what you really want to do, and skip the rest.
  • Reach Out. Think you are the only one on campus who is experiencing mania or depression? Think again. Thousands of students experience bipolar, depression, schizophrenia or another mental condition every year—you are not alone. Many college campuses now have a chapter of Active Minds or NAMI on Campus, clubs for students living with mental health conditions and their friends. Most high schools and colleges also have counselors available if you ever need someone to talk to. Take advantage of this support network. Maybe you can even help somebody.

Students living with bipolar disorder are capable of great things. All it takes is a little care and planning to ward off stress and pave the way for a great year at school.