What Every College Student Should Know About Bipolar Disorder

Depression. Eating disorders. Anxiety. It’s hard to escape the ugly truth that mental illness is a major health concern on college campuses across the nation. In a survey conducted by Her Campus of 92 undergraduates from various universities, 71% reported knowing someone who has been diagnosed with a mental illness while in college. In addition, 70% believe that mental health issues are prevalent among their student body. Despite heightened awareness of the most commonly diagnosed disorders, like depression or anorexia, a significant but lesser known illness escapes the mental health education of many collegiettes: bipolar disorder.

The National Institute of Mental Health asserts that bipolar disorder is most often diagnosed in college-age individuals. Only 2.3 million Americans are diagnosed bipolar patients, but the peak age of onset of the disorder is 18-22. Moreover, the number of college students being diagnosed with bipolar disorder has increased in recent years, says Nilda Hernandez, Ph.D., former Associate Professor of the Social Work Department at the College of New Rochelle. Bipolar disorder may seem complicated or scary, but it’s more relevant to college students now than ever before.

What is Bipolar Disorder?
Bipolar disorder is “a psychiatric illness in which a person has abnormal moods reflecting two opposite poles: depression on the one hand, and mania, a state of abnormally elevated energy, on the other,” says Dr. Richard Kadison, Chief of Mental Health Services at Harvard University, in his book, College of the Overwhelmed. Bipolar disorder is a type of depression, but unlike in major “unipolar” depression, bipolar individuals alternate between extreme emotional highs and lows. They sometimes have “episodes,” heightened periods of depression or mania lasting more than a week but behave normally in between episodes.

"You could say that a bipolar person cycles through emotional highs and lows faster than the mood swings of an average person,” says Roy Stefanik, DO, assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the Georgetown University School of Medicine. “In addition, the amplitude of their highs and lows is much greater than that of a normal individual.”

You’ve probably heard about the severe feelings of hopelessness, fatigue, and anxiety that characterize depression, but many people are unfamiliar with mania, the other component of bipolar disorder. Dr. Hernandez explains that a manic episode can consist of any of the following symptoms:

  • Racing thoughts
  • Rapid speech
  • Sleeplessness
  • Impulsive behavior
  • Inflated self-esteem
  • Trouble focusing
  • Difficulty Functioning
  • Hallucinations
  • Paranoia

“For college students, mania can translate to staying out all night partying, shopping sprees, gambling, promiscuity, or lawbreaking,” says Dr. Stefanik. Of course, impulsive behavior takes on a different meaning from person to person, and risky behavior is all too common at wild college parties, but when a person’s judgment is clearly impaired or they are doing something they wouldn’t normally, it could be considered a manic episode.

An early sign of bipolar disorder is a drastic change in sleep schedule, which indicates that a person is having their first, mild manic episode. The episode usually consists of getting very little sleep, from two to three hours a night, over the course of several days. Unlike the all-nighters you may be forced to pull because of a big exam or project every once in a while, these sleepless episodes occur without motivation and do not leave the person feeling especially impaired during the day.

Tarina is a freshman at Harvard University, where she plans to study English. In addition to serving on the Editorial Board of the Harvard Crimson newspaper, Tarina is involved in Philips Brooks House Association, a community service organization, and Ghungroo, Harvard's annual South Asian dance extravaganza. When she's not buried in pre-med classes or Arabic homework, Tarina likes to indulge in Indian soap operas, try unusual cuisine, and speculate on the meaning of life with her partners in crime, AKA friends. She loves creative writing and administrates a fiction blog as well as an online journalism portfolio, and her highly entertaining mishaps often merit publication on Harvard FML.