We’ve talked about how to manage going back to work after a bipolar diagnosis. But what about going to school? What is college like with bipolar disorder? What are the unique challenges of trying to navigate academia with a mental illness? And how can you put yourself in the best possible position for success?
Join us as Gabe and Dr. Nicole discuss practical tips and considerations when starting your college career — all ideas and things that will put you in the best position for success.
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, “Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations,” available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.
He is also the host of Healthline Media’s Inside Mental Health podcast available on your favorite podcast player. To learn more about Gabe, or book him for your next event, please visit his website, gabehoward.com.
Dr. Nicole Washington is a native of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where she attended Southern University and A&M College. After receiving her BS degree, she moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma to enroll in the Oklahoma State University College of Osteopathic Medicine. She completed a residency in psychiatry at the University of Oklahoma in Tulsa. Since completing her residency training, Washington has spent most of her career caring for and being an advocate for those who are not typically consumers of mental health services, namely underserved communities, those with severe mental health conditions, and high performing professionals. Through her private practice, podcast, speaking, and writing, she seeks to provide education to decrease the stigma associated with psychiatric conditions.
Find out more at DrNicolePsych.com.
Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Bipolar, a Healthline Media Podcast, where we tackle bipolar disorder using real-world examples and the latest research.
Gabe: Welcome, everybody. My name is Gabe Howard and I live with bipolar disorder.
Dr. Nicole: And I’m Dr. Nicole Washington, a board-certified psychiatrist.
Gabe: Dr. Nicole, several podcast episodes back we did going back to work living with bipolar disorder, and then we did another one, managing the workday, setting workday routines, living with bipolar disorder. All surrounding this idea that one, you have bipolar disorder and two, you have a full-time job. Well, our listeners, they keep us on task. And they said, well, you know, for some people, going to school is a full-time job. Getting degrees is a full-time job. They’re, they’re, they’re younger apparently. So, we’ve attracted the younger audience really that that’s just my takeaway right there. We have a younger audience.
Dr. Nicole: Well, I mean, that’s cool because as old as we both are, the fact that anyone who’s old enough to go to college or young enough to be in college, which I guess anybody could go to college, right? Like that’s a pretty ageist assumption of us, right? Isn’t ageist of us to assume?
Gabe: Uh, you know, now that you mention it. That’s really true. And I really should have known better because I went to college, and I didn’t graduate, but I did go to college when I was 28 years old. And actually, it was at the advice of my therapist because I wasn’t working. And my therapist is like, well, why don’t you try to take some classes? So, I was I was never a full-time college student. I want to be fair, but it did create a lot of issues. And the listeners are right, right? Going to school is very difficult, and I don’t think I’m going to get any pushback from a woman who went to medical school.
Dr. Nicole: No, you will absolutely not. And really, the things we’re going to talk about today apply whether you’re a traditional student and you’re 18, 19, 20, 21 navigating college or you are at a later point in your life and you’re what we call a nontraditional student, and you’re older, finding yourself going back to college or going to college for the first time.
Gabe: Isn’t nontraditional just one of those ways to say you’re old? Politely?
Dr. Nicole: Um, it is, it is, but we’re going to roll with it. Nontraditional.
Gabe: We are going to roll with
Dr. Nicole: Because it sounds better than old a student, you know what I’m saying? It sounds. Sounds better. Sounds better.
Gabe: So, Dr. Nicole, one of the first things that we really have to accept is that anything that you do full time, and I know that that college isn’t exactly your stereotypical 9 to 5, you have a little more control. But I’d like to point out that jobs these days are not your stereotypical 9 to 5. We have this idea that every single person working 40 hours a week is getting up at nine and, you know, getting off at five. But there’s all kinds of jobs now. There’s weekend jobs, there’s overnight jobs, there’s second shift, there’s shift work, there’s retail. There’s every job imaginable obviously has people living with bipolar disorder. And college is no different. You have a lot of control over your schedule up until a certain point. Different colleges offer different things. Now, one of the things I was thinking about is virtual college, I think, in my mind, would be easier for people living with bipolar disorder to manage, but easier is I don’t know. That’s one of those loaded words, isn’t it?
Dr. Nicole: Yeah, it probably depends on what kinds of classes they’re taking. Are they synchronous? Are they asynchronous? So, are they having to log in at a certain time to be available for class, you know, with everyone else? Or are they able to then go log in later and do things at their own pace? Sometimes even testing for online college courses can be timed just as if you were in the classroom. So that can still create some issues for people. If timed things and timed assignments and timed tests are an issue. So, it really just depends on the setup of the virtual college. It just depends.
Gabe: It really sounds like one of the things that you can do to set yourself up for success is to find the right program. So, for example, if you need to survive on a schedule, find a program where you do meet at noon every Tuesday and Thursday. Find a program where you start at nine and do end at five. Or if that is more difficult for you, find a program where over the next week, any time that is convenient for you, you do the following assignments and turn them in by the deadline. And depending on who you are personally and where you are in your bipolar recovery, it could be different for both people. So, I think understanding that is very valuable.
Dr. Nicole: Yeah, that would be important for you to know. It would also, I think, be important for you to know what resources are available. What does that school offer you? Whether it’s an online versus an in-person, maybe you need the support of an office of disabilities. Maybe, maybe you don’t. And if you don’t, then your options are probably greater and you can be a little wider in the net that you cast.
Gabe: So, the Office of Disability Service is required at all colleges. All accredited universities will have this. Now I want to I want to I want to do a little rabbit hole for a moment. There’s many people living with bipolar disorder. They’re like, well, I’m not disabled. I don’t have a disability. The Office of Disability Services is not for me. The Office of Disability Services is for people in a wheelchair. So, the first thing is take a take a great big deep breath and know that the Office of Disability Services is absolutely, unequivocally, 100% for you. And that’s okay.
Dr. Nicole: I think you’re right. People think, oh, if I need, you know, help with a physical disability, but I don’t I don’t know if it’s common knowledge that if you have a mental health diagnosis, if you have a mental illness, anxiety disorder, uh, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, ADHD, if you have those things and could benefit from some kind of accommodation, I don’t know if people always know to go do that.
Gabe: I really do honestly believe that it comes from the naming, the Office of Disability Services. And we have all been raised to believe that disabilities are 100% physical. We never consider that a mental health issue can need an accommodation and is in the disability category. Many people living with bipolar disorder, if you poll them right now and ask them if they are disabled, they will say no. So it’s, I don’t want to say that it’s poorly named, but I think that many people do believe that it’s not for them.
Dr. Nicole: So, I will tell you, when I do bring it up with patients is when I ask like, oh, how are classes going or how is school going? And people tell me things like, oh, I’m really struggling or I’m struggling to keep up with, you know, the reading or I’m struggling to keep up with the test or I do well on assignments, but then I don’t do great on tests. And then it sparks my, my brain to say, oh, have you, have you talked to anyone in the Office of Disability Services? And then the conversation happens. So, the things that make me even offer that are just what I talked about. If you are able to do assignments because they’re on your own time and you’re able to take your time and do them in your own time, but you find that for whatever reason, the finite amount of time that you have for a test is not quite enough. So, if a person tells me, like I’m not able to finish my test, like I can get about two thirds of the way through and I just can’t finish it, then we can talk about if we feel like it is part of your symptoms that are causing you to have difficulty kind of completing that in a quick manner, because that’s something we can definitely ask for accommodations, for extended time, for testing. Um, if you’re somebody who finds that you get very distracted by a lot of outside noises and you need quiet or more quiet than what a test in a room full of people can give you. Then we can sometimes request for you to be able to test in a different room or in a different space that gives you more quiet. So, things, those are a couple of things that typically will lead me to say, oh my gosh, yes, we should just be asking for help in those areas to see what we can work out.
Gabe: The advantage of the Office of Disability Services is they’re going to do an intake, they’re going to talk to you, they’re going to figure out what you can do, and they’re going to tailor something to you. So, I’m not trying to oversell. I think at this point people are like, did the Office of Disability Services sponsor this episode? Um, but there’s just so much minutia that comes with it from people not knowing that exists. People think it’s not for them. Or my personal favorite, people thinking that it’s a cheat or it’s a cop out and it won’t prepare them for the real world. Now, Dr. Nicole, if I may, for our traditional students who are 18 years old and have been and just who believe that it’s a cheat to ask for any sort of help, I,
Dr. Nicole: Mhm.
Gabe: I really, really, really feel that you should give me a moment to talk to those students.
Dr. Nicole: Okay. You have the floor.
Gabe: I have the floor. This is exciting.
Dr. Nicole: You have the floor. Yes.
Gabe: Dr. Nicole, I really believe that part of the problem is that children are conditioned in America to believe that there are no second chances, that the world is one size fits all, and that if you make any sort of mistake, nobody is going to help you correct it. And nothing could be further from the truth. The world would cease to operate if every single employee who made one mistake was immediately fired. That that every single time a product was launched and didn’t work out, that company closed. We can all think of many failed products, and yet those same product teams move on to the next team because they learned from those mistakes. When it comes to the quote/unquote real world, so much of it is up to negotiation. I remember before I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I had a job where in my negotiation I said, I will work second shift unless there is a home hockey game, because I had season tickets. So, I said, if you can design my schedule so that 44 days out of the year, you don’t sign me up for that second shift, I will work all your second shifts.
Gabe: And that person was like, that’s great, because people don’t want to work second shifts because they had children. And I did not. So once again, somebody hears this and they’re like, really? You negotiated this upon hiring? Absolutely I did. And I want to be clear, my employer was thrilled. And there are so many stories that way. Walk up to anybody who’s been in the workforce for 30 years and ask them for the weirdest thing they negotiated with their boss, and I guarantee they have a story, because the world is infinitely negotiable and employers want happy employees. It’s how we got flex time, for Pete’s sake. Uh, people work different schedules. It’s how we got work from home. It’s how we got so many things because employees negotiated it. Living with bipolar disorder means you understand what you need to be successful. We’re talking about school and college right now, but go ahead and start that education now. And I promise you it will serve you well into your work life.
Dr. Nicole: See and I think there’s a change. Right. So, I have the, I have the pleasure of raising two Gen Z-ers right now. Um, and they’re pretty amazing. Like they’re pretty awesome as a, as a, as a, as a generation. I know a lot of people our age are, you know, the Gen Xers, uh, our age folks are like, ah, you know, we’re I mean, we’re literally turning into the get off my lawn people before our own eyes, like, get off my lawn. And I think that we are going to be so surprised by these Gen Z-ers like they are just the world is just different for them, right? For them it’s a lot easier for them to embrace those differences, and to be okay with accessing those services like I do. I see I see that as being I see this generation in general as being a lot more inclusive, embracing diversity, kind of understanding. You just subtle differences in people that don’t necessarily make them different. Having said that, I also have a Gen Z that I am raising, um, who does not have bipolar disorder but has another disorder that could benefit from him accessing the Office of Disability Services at his school. Right? Um, but he hasn’t. And so here I am as a mom, having this conversation just within the past week. You know, he’s telling me about some struggles he’s having in a particular class, and he had trouble with the test. And he’s telling me about the issues with the test. And I said, hey, did you, uh, did you ever take that letter from your psychiatrist to the Office of Disability Services? And he’s like, oh, you know, I don’t think I did.
Gabe: Is he embarrassed by it or what? What’s his? What’s impacting him not wanting to do it?
Dr. Nicole: So, there’s a little bit of. I keep trying to see if I can do it on my own. Like, I just want to see if I can do it without the help. But then repeatedly having these little, little bitty issues, I mean, the kid is still on a Dean’s List. The kid is still doing great academically. But there’s these little stresses that just are unnecessary stresses, right? Like unnecessary, which is is part what my point in this is it’s just unnecessary. Like you have enough stuff to stress over in life. Why stress over something you don’t have to? I mean, why struggle unnecessarily? It just doesn’t make sense to me. I mean, to me, an unnecessary struggle is just one of the most ridiculous things in the world. And we all do it. We’ve all struggled with something and fought against kind of getting help. I mean, it’s human, like, we all do ridiculous things all the time, but it is ridiculous to suffer unnecessarily.
Gabe: One of the things that I always like to point out when we’re making these decisions is the world is so filled with discrimination and stigma against people with bipolar disorder that we’re going to be judged no matter what we do. So, we might as well do the thing that give us the best life, because that’s a huge protective factor to not only standing up against that stigma and discrimination, but pushing through it. There’s no less discrimination if you do it on your own. It’s just a harder road and your odds of success go down. And then you’re one of those people on the other end. They’re like, well, I told you, people with bipolar disorder couldn’t do it. I this was a hard lesson for me to learn. I will be the first to admit, based on my upbringing, based on my age, based on toxic masculinity. I believe that I had to be stoic and pushed through, but all it made me was sick. And the sicker I got, the more people pointed at me and said, see, people like him can’t achieve. The minute
Dr. Nicole: Right.
Gabe: I started using all of the resources at my disposal, I started to achieve. Now there’s still stigma against me, Dr. Nicole. It didn’t all go away,
Dr. Nicole: Mhm.
Gabe: But I gotta tell you, it’s much easier to deal with that stigma when I have a wife and a dog and a house and a job and emotional stability. So, I think we’ve really set the stage that obviously you have to be in control and utilize all the resources at your disposal. Let’s talk about some resources at your disposal that have nothing to do with the Office of Disability Services, things that you can do to improve your odds of success in college. Now, Dr. Nicole, I want to defer to you because, well, you have way more schooling than me. I didn’t even get an associate’s degree. And, well, you’re a doctor. Uh, now, I know that I live with bipolar disorder, and you don’t. But thinking as a psychiatrist, if I said to you, Dr. Nicole, I want to get a doctorate. I want to become a doctor right now. Now, the first thing is, is I think many people hear that, and they’re like, dude, you live with bipolar disorder. Forget it. You’re never going to be a doctor. What are your thoughts on living with that sort of discrimination? When people are trying to get not only bachelor’s degrees, but even advanced degrees, because there’s just an incredible amount of pushback on, oh no, you live with bipolar disorder. You should you should become like a pizza delivery person.
Dr. Nicole: I mean, is it going to be harder? Probably, but it’s hard for a lot of people. I mean, I can recall wanting to go to medical school as a college student and having a professor tell me that I should probably not do medical school and I should do I should go get a PhD and do research, because it would be a lot easier for me to do than to than to graduate and become a doctor. So, I mean, there’s always going to be discrimination against you. It’s just a matter of why, like, why are you why are you being discriminated against? Right? Are you a woman? Or are you black? Are you Latino? Like, why are you being discriminated against? In this case, it’s because you have bipolar disorder, right? So, will it be harder? Maybe. I cannot sit here and tell you. Oh, absolutely. Just go get it. It’s great. It’s fine. It’s no big deal. Um, so my first question to people is what’s the long-term goal? Like what? What is it that you want to do that you feel like you need that particular degree to achieve? And then we talk about how we get there and we break it down into smaller steps. I think that it is unnecessarily stressful for a person who has not taken a college course, who has been dealing with their bipolar illness and in and out of the hospital, or trying to get medication regimens correct to all of a sudden decide they’re going to carry a full load of 12 to 15 hours in college. Like, to me, that is not the smartest decision. So, I do discourage people from jumping in full time out the gate.
Dr. Nicole: You know, my thought is, let’s take a class or two. Maybe try an online class first. Maybe let’s try something basic. Let’s see how that goes for you. You could very likely start taking classes and think, oh my God, this is amazing. Like this is what I needed. I needed to use my brain in this way, and it might energize you to completely continue to go forward. It could also make you realize, oh, I don’t think all this school is for me, I don’t think this is the direction I want to go in my life. We never know until you try, but there’s very little benefit to you jumping in full time right away, because chances are it’s going to be a hard transition from nothing to full time. And then when you’re not successful, you’ll say, I knew I couldn’t do it because I have bipolar disorder. Well, no, you couldn’t do it because it was an unrealistic goal to start with. So, I think kind of stepping back, having people in your life that you can talk to, whether it’s your therapist, it’s family, it’s your psychiatrist, it’s whoever it is to kind of help you map out what’s a good plan to just get my feet wet? That is going to be the best place for you to start.
Gabe: I love that you set me up for this. It’s almost like we work together. Because that’s exactly what my therapist said. My therapist said, look, you’re not going to enroll at the big state school because that’s just too much. You’re going to take one class at the local community college and see how it goes. And even more specifically, she said, what interests you? And I named off some interests, and she says, okay, what subjects do you suck at? And I said, math. It’s always math. And one of the things that interested me was, was sociology. And another thing that interested me was psychology and so and English. I wanted to become a better writer. So, she said, okay, here’s what you’re going to do. You don’t do well in the mornings, so you’re going to find an introductory class in one of those subjects, and you’re going to take it in the middle of the day. That’s when you do the best and let me know what you come up with. So, I came back and I said, I found I found psychology 101. That was the one that was offered at
Dr. Nicole: Okay.
Gabe: The right time. It was offered on Tuesdays and Thursdays. So, I signed up for psychology 101. And then we did some planning. See, we did some planning after that. Where are you going to park? What time do you need to leave? Do you know the walk to get there? And before that class ever started, I would drive down there with friends, park and walk to the class. Friends who had better directions than me. Then after a while, before the class ever started, I drove down there and walked it by myself. Just walked right into the room it was going to be in. So, by the time class started, this was old hat for me. I knew where to park.
Dr. Nicole: Right.
Gabe: I knew the route; I knew where the class was and the few things that happened along the way. Like it didn’t occur to us that maybe the parking lot would be full. Uh, so
Dr. Nicole: Mhm.
Gabe: I did have to park a little further away, but that’s okay, because that was just like one little thing. I had so many protective factors at this point. I walked right in. I took that one class and I nailed it and it was fantastic. And then the next time I added on some more classes.
Dr. Nicole: Mm-hmm. And you did those things because you knew that those were the things that could ruin your experience. Right? If you got lost getting there, if you didn’t know where to park, if you were running late, if you. All these things, you would have gotten a class and have been a whole mess trying to pull it together. Because by the time you’ve gotten there, your anxiety would have been ten out of ten and you would have gotten nothing out of class.
Gabe: Oh, listen, I would have quit.
Dr. Nicole: Yeah, you’d have been ready to quit after the first class.
Gabe: I would have absolutely quit before I even got to the class. I would have sent the email from my phone. I want to be like, very honest, this is how I quit jobs. This was my MO.
Dr. Nicole: Yes.
Gabe: If my anxiety got too high, I just quit and ran away. So, it was
Dr. Nicole: Yes.
Gabe: A definite protective factor to make sure that I could do this. And, Dr. Nicole, I want to tell you, I, I took a college class. I know it seems like stupid and ridiculous, but it but it wasn’t I. I had been unemployed and kind of, you know, suffering from bipolar disorder and sitting on my butt and trying to get better and, and just I was kind of lost. And all of a sudden
Dr. Nicole: Mm-hmm.
Gabe: I had college credit. From a community college. There, I can even hear people were like, well, from a community college, you took one class. But at that time in my life, it was one of my greatest accomplishments and it was one of my first big accomplishments after bipolar disorder, after the diagnosis. And as I’m reaching recovery, and then that led into me taking more classes, which ultimately led into a job. I never graduated. But that’s because I got a full-time job, and having a full-time job
Dr. Nicole: Mhm.
Gabe: And going to college did prove to be too much. And I was very excited to be back to work. And I was doing things. And ultimately it was not the path for me. But even as we sit here, Dr. Nicole, I can tell you these are very meaningful moments in my recovery
Dr. Nicole: Yeah.
Gabe: And I’m so proud of myself.
Dr. Nicole: Okay, so first of all, we’re gonna go back. It does not seem ridiculous or stupid. Um, it is a big deal. So, we’re going to erase that from the from the from the from the narrative, from part of the story. It does not. We are not going to minimize the fact that taking a college course, after not wondering if you’d ever be able to work again, is a big deal. It’s a huge deal. Um, anyone who is saying like, oh, it’s a community college can take several seats somewhere to the left because we don’t care what they are. We don’t care. We don’t care what they have to say about us. Right, y’all? So, uh, we don’t care. So, it’s a huge deal. And I do think one of the things that we don’t do well in, in the world in general is we just don’t do a good job of celebrating small victories and celebrating like where we are. That’s a huge deal. I mean, that that’s a huge deal.
Dr. Nicole: And we’re back discussing navigating college with bipolar disorder.
Gabe: Dr. Nicole, thank you, thank you. It is a big deal. But remember, people living with bipolar disorder, there’s a lot of people around us that they’re like, you took one class grade at a community college. Big deal. Get a job. Stop living off your wife. These are the things that I heard. So, I didn’t realize in the moment that it was a big deal. So, thank you for reminding all of our listeners that you should not be listening to those people. And apparently several seats to the left is a bad place to sit.
Dr. Nicole: [Laughter] Just take some seats. Just take some seats. And we started this segment off by saying, what are those things that you can do that don’t involve the Office of Disability Services to be successful? And part of that for you may be reevaluating the people around you or the people that have access to your thoughts. Right. So, these people that you are sharing your exciting moments with who are dragging you down, it may be time. It may be time to end those relationships. I think when you start to make transitions, you start to grow. You just can’t take everybody with you. I mean, that is the reality of life. Wherever you’re growing, whatever steps you are taking up, you everybody will not go there with you and you will figure out who to take with you and who not to, based on probably how they respond to these small victories in your life. So that is one thing that you can do. Take some time to evaluate who are the people that I am allowing to live in my head rent free? Who are these people and do they? Have they earned that right?
Gabe: Dr. Nicole, you are so right and this is not a bipolar thing.
Dr. Nicole: No.
Gabe: Ask anybody who does not manage a severe and persistent mental illness if they’re still friends with their their high school crowd, with their college crowd, with their, uh, you know, my mom is not even friends with her mommy group from 30 years ago because they were bonded by all having toddlers. And then all of their kids got involved in different sports and they just lost touch. So, this is not because we live with bipolar disorder. It’s a very human thing. But as a protective factor for bipolar disorder, if you do something that you’re proud of and people tell you that it’s nothing, those are not your people. Now, some people are easier
Dr. Nicole: No.
Gabe: To cut off than others. Obviously, if your mom, dad, uncle, grandma, grandpa, brother, sister are not supportive of it, you just got to set that boundary that you’re not going to talk to about it with them versus cutting them off. The world is not clean,
Dr. Nicole: Mhm.
Gabe: But know that they’re not an honest critic. Know that they’re not the person to take that success, to figure out the people who to take the success to. And again, I think that that is a huge, huge protective factor in college. Now, another thing that I’m thinking about, Dr. Nicole, because I’m a huge fan of the television show community, is the study group. I feel that everybody in college does better if they have a group of people to study with, because I, I think, I think it’s helpful. But living with bipolar disorder, you got to find the right people. And I’m pretty sure you can’t put something on the bulletin board that says, you know, bipolar six study group. But finding the right people to study with has to be easier. Again, if you’re if you’re an extroverted person, if you want a study group. But getting
Dr. Nicole: Yes.
Gabe: Into the right group if you so choose, has to be a protective factor to this. But you can’t just pick any study group. But honestly, Dr. Nicole, I would think that bipolar disorder or not, you can’t just pick any study group.
Dr. Nicole: No, that’s 100% accurate. I don’t watch a lot of TV. Um, so I’ve never seen community, so I don’t really, so I’m lost on this reference.
Gabe: Is complete nonsense. It’s complete nonsense. The only. The only through line is that there’s a study group in the show. That’s it.
Dr. Nicole: [Laughter] Okay, well. Point taken. Um, I think you have to decide what’s your way of studying. So, one of the things that again, again, you think, oh, I have to have a study group because people say that I needed a study group. People don’t know you, like you know you. I will tell you, I was never a study group person. I never studied in groups. I always studied by myself. I did not want to be bothered with other people’s foolishness. So, it is always. It was always me. Um, but if I’d wanted it, it would have needed to be the right group of people. And I think the only way you’re going to know that is through trial and error. You’re going to have to, you know, try out a couple of groups as you’re in class with people and they say, hey, you want to study with us, you can try it. And if it doesn’t work, you just say, um, I don’t feel like the group setting really works out well for me, or it doesn’t have to be an all or nothing. You can be totally okay with saying, I will study, you know, once a week with a group, but then every other day I’m going to do it on my own. It can be whatever you need it to be, but I wouldn’t feel obligated to study in a group for sure.
Gabe: Especially when you’re a new college student, you might have to try different methods, learn different methods, and figure out what method works for you. It’s no different than learning coping skills, right? The very first
Dr. Nicole: Yeah.
Gabe: Coping skill that you learned isn’t the one that worked. It’s probably a pretty big ask of the universe to think that you’re going to show up at school and you’re going to meet your study group, and that’s going to be the study group that takes you all the way to, uh, let’s just go for medical degree at this point. Right. It’s it’s and of course, this, this, this study group that you’re in may change again, just like therapists. We get a therapist and they do great for a while. And then we need a different therapist. Or maybe we need a break from therapy. The world is not clean. So, in short, which I am not known for. In short, if the study group doesn’t work for you, find one that does up to and including not needing a study group at all and it could be dependent on the subject. I can definitely see me needing a study group for math and not needing a study group for philosophy.
Dr. Nicole: Yeah, absolutely. And, you know, we haven’t talked about this, but even just utilizing your professor’s office hours is, is valuable and doesn’t necessarily require the Office of Disability Services. So, most people who teach courses in college have office hours where you can ask them questions or if there’s something you’re not getting, maybe you don’t know there’s something you’re not getting until that test comes back and you think, oh, I don’t understand. You can go talk to that professor during their office hours and say, hey, I’m struggling here or there, or do you have any tips that may be an opportunity for you to say, yeah, I have, you know, whatever disorder it is that I have. And sometimes timed things are difficult for me. See what they have to say about it. They may say, mm. Have you thought about going to the Office of Disability Services to get accommodations. But, but it is nice to know that that that’s available. And honestly most people who teach they’re not doing it because they just need a check like they value the ability to teach people things and to have people do well in their courses.
Dr. Nicole: So, if they get to know you and can see that you’re not slacking, there’s a true problem. They’ll help you try to figure it out. So, I would say utilize, you know, things like that as well. If there’s if there’s campus counseling that you need to engage in, some campuses even offer coaching as part of their services that students can access. Maybe you need a coach who can help you basically to be a decent student or just to be a student, especially if it’s not something you’re good at because you’ve never done it. And all of a sudden now you’re a college student, so maybe you need someone to help you through. How do I navigate just being a student and learning to study? Because you may not even know what your study style is. You may need somebody to help you with that. There are all kinds of resources available that don’t necessarily require you to hold up a sign that says, hey, I have a disability, help me.
Gabe: One of the things that I think about, Dr. Nicole, is that we learn about college largely from graduates. We hear about people who have graduated from college and whether it’s our parents, our friends, our relatives, our teachers, they’re all college graduates, and they’re pushing us to go. And they’re giving us a four, six, eight-year experience all wrapped into a you should go to college. I think it would certainly be much more helpful if the people who we were talking to were, you know, freshmen, uh, this was their first time because by the time we graduate, we’re like, oh, we did this and we did this, and we did this. And it was this great experience, and I learned so much, etc.. And then when we get there on day one and we don’t have that experience, bipolar disorder kicks in, anxiety kicks in, mania kicks in, depression kicks in. And we’re like, wait, I’ve heard about college my whole life and I’m not having that experience. Therefore, I personally am doing something wrong. Uh, but here’s the thing that I would say 100% of freshmen feel exactly the same way that you do because it’s new and it’s overwhelming. And they also have been conditioned to believe that college is this magical experience, which eventually it will become. But nothing is magical. On day one. Your first day of anything is rough. Your first few months of anything is rough, but so many people internalize that to believe that it’s the bipolar disorder that is making it rough rather than
Dr. Nicole: Mhm.
Gabe: This is just part of the process.
Dr. Nicole: Yeah, but I also don’t want to minimize. I don’t want to minimize the fact that you could be having a little bit more of a struggle because you maybe you’re having, you know, some minor mood symptoms. Maybe you’re having some difficulty with concentration, maybe it’s focus, maybe it’s short tum memory, maybe it’s retaining it. Could that be related to either your bipolar illness or medication that you’re taking? It could be. So, I don’t want to minimize that. I think you just have to figure out what can you do to overcome those barriers. And I don’t know if this is something that schools offer, but it would seem like it’d be a great idea for that Office of Disability Services to have some kind of peer support group mentor program available. You know what? And if your campus doesn’t have one, go to your Office of Disability Services and say, hey, I’d like to start a support group for people who have mental health disorders who are trying to navigate college. You might have more people show up than you would think, but that seems like that might even be a good place is to try to find that peer group. We talked so much about how peer to peer support is so important. Somebody who’s had your at least similar shared experience and this wouldn’t be any different.
Gabe: I’m so glad that you brought that up, Dr. Nicole, because it’s a great tip and there’s so many clubs and activities and meetings and groups that happen on campuses. And while I cannot guarantee that there is one for everything, or even if there is one, maybe there won’t be anybody your age or with your particular experience or needs. But there are groups out there in many campuses for people living with severe and persistent mental illness, or who are having mental health problems to go and just even just talk to like-minded people and just to say, hey, is this this or is that that, what’s your experience? And tease it out? But I also want to say you are absolutely right. There is no reason to assume anything if you are struggling in any way. This is what your therapist is for. This is what your Dr. Nicole is for. This is what your Office of Disability Services is for. Don’t assume that it is because you’re a new student. Ask, get some information, advocate for yourself and find out where on the line it is. Because the reality is, is anything new can trigger symptoms, new routines, new job, new house, new even great things. I am often symptomatic the first couple of days of vacation because it’s so new. When I’m in a time zone and I love travel, I love vacation. And this is part of self-advocacy, and there is no better time to be a self-advocate than when you’re going back to school, or when you’re going to school or college in the first place, because there is a lot of change and you are, in fact, redesigning your routines, which of course, brings me to my next point. When you start school, you need to redesign your routines. That’s got to be a little bit difficult when every quarter or every semester, all of your classes rearrange.
Dr. Nicole: Yeah it is. Every semester the schedule changes. Maybe you have 8 a.m. classes, whereas before you never did. So, you have to reevaluate your whole sleep study schedule. But that’s okay. Just you know it’s coming. You know what you need to do. Some people struggle during the break when they don’t have a schedule and they don’t have a routine. That’s when I see people struggle the most. They will tell me like, oh, my sleep has been so off. I’m just staying up late and doing whatever and man, I’m off the rails. Yes, you are off the rails. Let’s get back on the rails. Like let’s keep a schedule going. All of it can be stressful, but just because it can doesn’t mean it will be. Or it has to be like you just prepare for it. And I say it like it’s an easy thing, because in reality, it really is kind of an easy thing. Like, you know, when it’s coming, it’s not sneaking up on you. You have the dates months in advance. You know, when the semester ends, you know, when finals are, you know, when dead week is, you know, when a new semester starts, like, you know all the things. So, you know what to do.
Gabe: One of the greatest tips that I got when doing research for this episode is when you’re on the holiday break, or the summer break is to keep the same schedule and I know it’s really hard because we want to hang out with our friends, we want to do things and we want to forget. But keeping the schedule that you’re going to have after the break is over is super important. The next thing that I saw that was very, very helpful is try to line up your classes. You know, try to be the person who always takes afternoon classes. The next thing I saw, just as sort of a rapid thing, was to study at the same time every day. Say, hey, listen, I study from, you know, 3 to 6. That’s when I study. Tell all your friends, you study from 3 to 6. Don’t invite you. Make that plan and build that as part of your routine as well. I learned that so much of college is outside of the actual classes, and if you’re not designing a routine around those, you’re kind of setting yourself up for failure. Hard. Stop that. That’s not even a bipolar tip. That’s a that’s just a that’s just a college tip. But I know as somebody who is a slave to their routine, setting that up as very helpful.
Gabe: And this was the last tip that I really thought was incredible, Dr. Nicole. And again, your mileage may vary, but several people said, look, they get up at the same time every day and they go to campus and they stay on campus all day, and they do their studying in the library. They go to their classes, then they do their study in the library again, or the common areas or wherever. And that way when they go home, college is over. And this helps them design a much better school life balance than going home, going to class, going home, going to class. And I was really interested in your thoughts on that, because there’s some part of me that thinks that going home would provide a break. But then there’s another part of me that thinks this would work really well for me, because I would know that when I was on campus, I was in school zone, and when I was home, I was in rest zone, and I wouldn’t have to go back and forth, which can be very difficult for me.
Dr. Nicole: Yeah, I mean on all of that. So, I mean, I’ll go back to the, the first of the, of the tips that you read. I’m not as rigid in my recommendations for sleep during the break. Um, I’m, I’m rigid on the hours, like I, I want you to make sure that you’re still able to get your full night. But you know what? I think that that’s part of the fun of being a college student is knowing that on the break, I can stay up late watching TV with my friends and hanging out, and I can sleep in the next morning. As long as you’re getting the same amount of sleep and nothing’s disrupted. I’m not terribly concerned about that. But I do think you know how when you were in elementary school and like the week before school started, your mom would all of a sudden be like, okay, we’re going to wake up, like we’re going to school. And you hated it. It was valuable. So, I think things like that could be helpful, like a few days before the semester starts getting yourself in the groove. But I’m all about being able to enjoy those moments because you don’t get them very often. I would kill for a month of no working, where I could just stay up late and sleep in and hang out and watch TV. So, enjoy it while you can. Now, as far as you know, everything else, I think you have to figure out who you are, and it may or may not have anything to do with your bipolar disorder, but maybe it does.
Dr. Nicole: Maybe your meds have you drowsy in the morning. And so, your prime cognitive functioning time is late morning into the afternoon early evening. So then yeah, if you know that I am clearer between these hours, then why would you set your study time to be 7 a.m.? That that that doesn’t make sense. You’re setting yourself up for failure. But if you know that. Well, I kind of am a morning person. So, for me, getting up at six and studying before I go to class and then being able to be kind of done in the afternoon works best for me. When my brain power’s done, then that works best for you. But the only way you’ll figure that out is trial and error. So, you can’t again, try to make yourself be like everybody else. It just depends on when you feel your sharpest and your brightest, and when you feel like things are firing better for you. I love the idea of having, like, your workspace or your school space and your and your home space. Um, but some people are better at home because it’s quiet and they can put their music on and they can sit at their desk. Um, so maybe your change when you’re at home, if you are forced to be a home studier, is I’m at a desk or I’m at a table and I don’t study on the couch, or I don’t study in the bed like I study at my table at the counter.
Dr. Nicole: I buy a chair and a and a dinner tray, and that’s my study station. If I don’t have a table or a counter to study at, like, you figure out what you need to do. But I do find that very valuable, whether it’s your job or school, to kind of have a space that is my brain tells me, oh, we’re in school mode because I’m sitting at the dinner tray at my chair like, I know I’m in school mode versus, oh, I’m on the couch. It’s time to relax. And if you have a place at the library, many libraries are much better than they were when we were in college, by the way. They have these, you know, individual spaces that you can rent out and they’re quiet. There’s actual quiet spaces. So, you may be able to find a place on campus that works for you from a studying standpoint. But that part I think is amazing and fantastic and really something you can use even into your career when you get a job, like having being able to cut off between your work day and your, your, your home time. I mean, you work from home, so I imagine you have to have a delineation right between your like, what? What’s my functioning work time at home and what’s my home time at home?
Gabe: Yes, I have an office in my house, and when I’m in that office, I’m at work. So much so that my wife won’t even walk in and talk to me, because it would be the literal equivalent of her showing up unannounced at my workplace. So, she’ll knock on the door. She’ll send me a text because she doesn’t know if I’m recording, if I’m thinking if I’m in the middle. So, it’s a very respectful thing. The bottom line really is you’ve got to figure out what works for you. And that is a trial-and-error process. Healthline.com has tons of articles on going to school with bipolar disorder, going to school with anxiety PsychCentral.com has tons of articles on managing serious and persistent mental illness, managing mental health issues and going to college, both of the traditional student and a nontraditional student. So many blogs. I hope that we have given you something to think about, and I hope that you continue to get tips based on this foundational knowledge. But sincerely, if there is nothing else that you have learned from this episode, it should be. It is absolutely, unequivocally possible for you to succeed in college with bipolar disorder. It’s not off the table for you. You can do it. And in fact, many, many, many people with bipolar disorder have been very successful in college. And you can too.
Dr. Nicole: Yeah, absolutely. In my in my real life, outside of being Dr. Nicole on this podcast, I take care of a lot of kind of high performing professionals. I take care of doctors, I take care of lawyers, I take care of C-suite folks, and several of them have bipolar disorder, and they’ve been able to achieve very high levels. Uh, pass the bar, pass their board exams, have medical practices, be surgeons, do all these things. Um, but it has come at them being able to recognize what they needed to do to be successful and then putting those things into motion. So, it’s not necessarily a hindrance if you had the capability or the desire to become a doctor or a lawyer or whatever, that thing is for you, and then you got derailed by bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder is by no means an absolute 100% barrier to you ever achieving those things. But it will it will, uh, it will require you to make some adjustments to the way you think and life and but you can do it. It can happen.
Gabe: I know that everybody listening has done it before and you can do it again. So, with that, thank you so much for being here. We really appreciate all of you. My name is Gabe Howard. I am an award-winning public speaker who could be available for your next event. I also wrote the book “Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations,” which you can get on Amazon because, well, everything is on Amazon. However, you can grab a signed copy with free show swag or learn more about me over at gabehoward.com.
Gabe: Wherever you downloaded this episode, please follow or subscribe. It is absolutely free and you don’t want to miss a thing and listen. Do us a favor, recommend the show. Put it on Reddit. Put it on Facebook. Put it on TikTok. Mention a support group. Hell, send everybody you know a text message because sharing the show is absolutely how we’re going to grow. We will see everybody next time on Inside Bipolar.
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