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Bipolar and Starting College or Work


Most students with bipolar disorders will be headed for a regular high school diploma. This usually requires passing a certain number of specified courses. If the student needs changes in the graduation requirements–for example, if your child has been unable to develop proficiency in a foreign language due to cognitive deficits caused by medication, or if he was hospitalized during a required course and needs a waiver–now’s the time to arrange for these changes.

Some students will need extra coursework to make it through high school, such as special instruction in keyboarding or study skills. These abilities will also help with higher education or work later on, and you can make them part of your child’s transition plan.

Some students will need more than the usual four years to complete diploma requirements. This can be a problem–most teens have a strong desire to graduate with their class. It is sometimes possible for a student who is still short some requirements for graduation to participate in the commencement ceremony with her class, if a plan has been made to remedy the deficits over the next few months.

Katie had to be hospitalized during her senior year. She was only two classes away from graduating, so we worked out a deal with the school counselor for her to finish those classes by correspondence over the summer. She walked across the stage in a cap and gown just like her friends. After a year that had been very difficult, that really meant a lot.
–George, father of 18-year-old Katie (diagnosed bipolar I disorder, anxiety disorder)

Some students will not be able to earn a regular diploma. They may choose (or be forced) to pursue a GED, as noted in Chapter 8, School. A special form of graduation called an IEP diploma is also available. If a student earns an IEP diploma, that means she has completed all of the objectives set out in her IEP for graduation. This option is usually reserved for students who are unable to master high school level work, such as students with severe mental retardation. However, it could be the route to a creative graduation option for your child.

Students who are headed for college may want or need to go beyond the basic high school diploma. If your state has a special diploma for advanced students, such as Oregon’s Certificate of Advanced Mastery or New York’s Regents Diploma, check early on about any accommodations that may be needed for the examination or portfolio process. Some states (including Oregon, as of this writing, but not New York) have refused to permit accommodations. This is patently illegal, and will surely be successfully challenged. If you don’t want to be the one to bring a lawsuit, ask instead for special tutoring in advance of the test.

In the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and Ireland, special help may be available to help teens pass their level exams, including modified exams in some cases. Talk to your LEA or education department for more information about options in your area.

Higher Education

If your child has been evaluated and judged eligible for special education services, the school district’s responsibility for his education does not end with the GED or high-school diploma. Students planning to attend trade school, a two-year community college program, or a four-year college program need information far in advance on which high school courses will be required for entry. This is especially important for those students with di sabilities who carry a lighter course load, as they may need to make up some credits in summer school or via correspondence courses.

Transition programs should address the move from high school to higher education. Disabled students are eligible for publicly funded education and/or services until age 22 if needed. In some cases this assistance will include tuition; in all cases it should include setting up mentoring and counseling services in advance at the student’s new school. Special education services and help for students with learning disabilities are available on campus and in the dorms at many colleges.

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It’s against the law to deny admission to students based on disabilities; of course, other admission criteria generally must be met. Public universities and community colleges may waive some admission criteria for disabled students on a case-by-case basis if the student can show that they are capable of college-level work. Standardized test requirements might also be set aside if high school grades or the student’s work portfolio look good.

Schools that normally require all freshmen to live on campus may waive this requirement for a student with special needs. If living at home is not an option, a group home or supervised apartment near campus might be. Before your child leaves for college in another city, make sure that you have secured safe and appropriate housing, and found competent local professionals to provide ongoing care. You’ll also want to work out a crisis plan with your child, just in case things go wrong. She will want to know whom to call and where to go. The freshman year of college is a very common time for symptoms to flare, as well as for the first onset of obvious bipolar symptoms in previously undiagnosed teenagers. The stress, the missed sleep, and the attractions of newfound freedom (such as drug and alcohol use) all play a role.

Bipolar and Starting College or Work

Sherrie Mcgregor, Ph.D.

APA Reference
Mcgregor, S. (2020). Bipolar and Starting College or Work. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 23, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 30 Jul 2020 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 30 Jul 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.