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Mental Health Awareness Week: What it's like living with bipolar disorder as a student


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The 13th-19th May 2019 is Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK, so we wanted to discuss some conditions that are less well known and raise some awareness about them.

Bipolar disorder, previously known as manic depression, is a condition characterised by extreme mood swings from severe depression to mania or hypomania.

Image credit: Sydney Sims, via Unsplash


Mind describes some of the symptoms of the mood states as:

Depressive episodes - feeling hopeless, irritable, pessimistic, tired or suicidal, self-harming, withdrawing from social situations and friends and family, lacking in appetite, trouble sleeping and concentrating. 

Manic or hypomanic episodes - speaking quickly, acting out of character, not eating or sleeping, experiencing psychosis (hallucinations or delusions), feeling elated and confident, spending lots of money.


There are also various types of bipolar disorder:

-       Type 1: which involves severe depression and mania, although this can be diagnosed with just mania, with episodes lasting longer than a week.

-       Type 2: which involves severe depression and hypomania (a less severe form of mania which does not include psychosis).

-       Cyclothymia: which involves hypomanic and depressive moods over the course of two years or more, with symptoms not as severe as type 1 or type 2. 

Some people may experience mixed episodes and rapid cycling: mixed episodes involve symptoms of both depression and mania and rapid cycling involves a rapid swing from depression to mania with no ‘normal’ period in between.


Treatment and coping with the disorder:


  1. Learning to recognise triggers and symptoms: making a mood diary is one of the first things a GP, psychiatrist or other mental health professional suggest you do. These can involve rating your mood on a scale, as well as changes in sex drive and sleep. Bipolar UK use this helpful mood scale, but there are many online you can use.

  1. Medication: medication can involve anti-psychotics that can help with psychosis and high moods, anti-depressants to help with low moods, and mood stabilisers to help level moods. Often a combination of all three are used. Finding a medication combination that works is trial and error and anti-psychotics often have some unpleasant side effects, but once you and your doctor find a combination that works, living with the condition can be much easier.

  1. Exercise: Many medications, particularly antipsychotics, can cause weight gain so it’s really important to stay fit and healthy - although that isn’t always easy. Exercise can also help boost your mood if you’re feeling low and may contribute to better sleep.

  1. Sleep: This is key. During manic or hypomanic episodes, need for sleep can change as well as with low moods. Short term medication can help but it’s also really important to get in a consistent sleeping pattern such as waking up and going to sleep at the same time every day. The NHS website has some great tips to help improve sleep.

  1. Therapy and support: Various types of therapy can help to deal with anxiety and low moods such as CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) which you can self-refer to in your area. Most universities also offer counselling services of six-ten weeks or mindfulness sessions. The charity Bipolar UK also run free support groups around the country where you can listen to other experiences and share your own if you wish. It may also be helpful to make note of the crisis team phone number in your local area in case you get to a place where you need them.

  1. Disabled Student’s Allowance (DSA): This is an allowance which you may qualify for if you have a mental or physical health condition that makes studying less difficult. You can apply at any point during the academic year if you have a formal diagnosis and the different types of help can include specialist equipment and computer software, a general allowance for things like photocopying, travel allowance or a non-medical helper, which may include a support tutor. You can apply here. 

    7. The NHS also has a mood zone section on its website to help with student mental health.

A student who wishes to remain anonymous discussed what helps them during a difficult time:


"One of the things I found most difficult about my diagnosis is the trial and error of medications. The side effects can really take a toll on your body, especially as loads of them involve weight gain and tiredness. What I’ve learned to do now is ask my lecturers for extensions to assignments so if I struggle with my moods or feel tired I still have time to finish my work. DSA has really helped me as well. I get to talk to a mentor once or twice a week and they help me plan out my work and if I can’t attend classes they can contact lecturers for me."

Bipolar disorder is a serious mental health condition and can be difficult to live with at times, but it is manageable. Having a great support network and making sure to check in on yourself and reduce stress is really important, particularly whilst studying.

If you’re at university and living away from home it can be quite confusing to access services. If you spend most of your time at university it may be better to access the health trust in that area as opposed to home, but check in with a GP from your home town and make them aware of your diagnosis. University halls, academic staff and mental health teams at university or in the community are all there to help and there is no shame in admitting that you need them.

If you think you might be experiencing bipolar disorder please visit your GP. For more information visit the NHS website. 

Lead image credit: Sydney Sims, via Unsplash

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