You Can't Get a Degree If You Have Bipolar Disorder - Myth
When I got diagnosed, I was attending a university and on my way to getting a bachelors of computer science. I was a pretty fastidious student in my first year and my grades were excellent. But before I knew what a mental illness was, I became sick and my grades dropped. It was only some time later that it became clear it was because I had bipolar disorder.
And after months of treatment, nothing was working and one day, my doctor said to me,
"You should drop out of school; you're never going to be able to finish your degree."
Getting a University Degree is Hard
Getting a university degree isn't easy; if it was, everyone would do it. So given that it's difficult for even the mentally well, it's understandable that it would be particularly difficult for the mentally ill. It's OK. Life poses challenges, pretty much all the time.
Accept it's going to be difficult. Accept it's going to be more difficult for you than for others. That's just how it's going to be.
Getting a University Degree Isn't Impossible
However, just because it's hard, that doesn't make it impossible. I do hard things all the time as do we all. Writing books? Hard. Having kids? Hard. Marriage? Hard. Bipolar? Hard. We're wired for the hard stuff.
How to Tackle University with a Mental Illness
But there are things you can do to stack the deck in your favor, make it more likely you will graduate.
1. Drop classes - you're not going to have the same bandwidth as everyone else so stop pretending that you do. There's no shame in saying you need to take a bit longer to complete your degree. There's no shame in making modifications to something really difficult to make it more doable for you. If you burn yourself out on classes, you're not going to graduate and you're going to sacrifice your mental health.
2. Take easy electives - yes, it's possible you really want to take advanced math-o-biochemistry-computerology but try to give yourself a break and take introduction to the modern sit-com instead. You'll thank me come midterms.
3. Talk to your professors; get extensions - talk to your professors early. When you see a storm a-coming, that is the time to talk to them - not after you're in a full-blown episode. Most professors are very understanding and will make reasonable modifications to due dates and make-up exams if you just talk to them openly about it. Get a doctor's note if you need it.
4. Prioritize school; work harder - you're probably going to have to do more work for lesser grades. Just accept that. But if you really want to go to school and you really want good grades, then spend every moment you can devoted to that pursuit. If a degree is really what you want, act like it.
I Got a Degree. I Have Bipolar Disorder.
I managed to get my bachelors of computer science. I had to go to school 6 semesters back-to-back (no summers off) and it took me a year longer than it should have, but I did it. I can't promise everyone can do that, but I can say that when you really want something, you need to find inventive ways to help you get it.
Having a disability isn't so much about closing doors as much as it is about redefining how they look.
You can find Natasha Tracy on Facebook or GooglePlus or @Natasha_Tracy on Twitter.
Tracy, N. (2011, September 15). You Can't Get a Degree If You Have Bipolar Disorder - Myth, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2023, June 2 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/breakingbipolar/2011/09/you-cant-get-a-degree-if-you-have-bipolar-disorder-myth
Author: Natasha Tracy
I would have to agree with you. I have bipolar disorder and still got high grades at a level and got into a russel group (prestigious research) uni to study mathematics. As courses go this is probably the toughest type of course on the planet. Mathematics is probably the hardest subject. There were NO resits allowed on my university course except to pass and I relapsed at the the first year. I got extensions to coursework deadlines though. I self studied and passed all my exams straight away. The first year doesn't count towards my degree so I don't care about the exams I didn't do too well in I only needed to pass. I was in better health in the second year and scored the equivalent of a 2.1. I don't care that I didn't score the equivelent of a first in my second year. NOBODY with bipolar could have done better. I could not complete the third year due to health problems so I will have to finish my degree online. The syllabus for my online maths degree I am doing at the moment is FAR easier than what I studied on campus. And a non mathematical degree would be even easier than that.
Hi everyone, I was diagnosed with bipolar 18 years ago along with alcohol/drug addiction and have managed to live alongside all three leaning heavily on the 12 step programme. I recently embarked on a degree in podiatry and I'm a very mature student! I really value all the comments and advice as I feel the stress could be challenging.
I have two masters degrees but a low paying, part time, crappy job. For me, school was always easier than work because work forces socializing, which is sometimes hard for me.
My father was bipolar & I spent my teens & 20s hoping I never had an incident. He wasn't diagnosed until his late 40s but it was obvious that he was a "poster boy" for the disorder. His tendency was to go towards mania & he wasn't the "fun" manic. During this time I was depressed, & assumed I was unipolar (didn't know the word). I went to college, dropped out, went again, dropped out, went again, dropped out. It took me 8 years to get an associates degree. The depression was too much & when you can't get out of bed to brush your teeth, you likely wont be studying either.
I had my first bout with mania in 2011. It cost me my job. At this point I decided to go back to school again. I believe for a 3-4 year period I was in a hypomanic to manic state. In that time I finished a Bachelors, got my masters, began grad work at an ivy league college, completed a graduate level certificate, became certified in several other subjects, & I'm considering going on to a doctorate.
It took me 8 years to get an associates from a community college. It took me 3 years to complete the rest. Since then the mania has subsided & I can't seem to get the ambition back to complete my course work. So I'm proof that Bipolar sufferers do have a hard time completing school, but in the right circumstances that energy can be harnessed. Had I never had my episode I'd never have lost my job, but I'd also not be considering pursuing a doctorate degree.
I am 43 and I have been in recovery from type 2 Bipolar for 14 years. My first few attempts at college met with failure, but at age 38 I enrolled in Liberty University Online, and online school was a format that really worked for me. I received my Bachelor's in Psychology/Crisis Counseling in 2015 and am now enrolled in a Master's in Clinical Mental Health Counseling program on campus at a different school. We are not "Bipolars" because our illness doesn't define who we are or what we can become. We are not Bipolar. We are people who have Bipolar, or people in recovery from Bipolar, and once we find what works for us (for me this was nutrition and lifestyle changes, nutritional supplements prescribed by a psychiatrist, weekly chiropractic adjustments but I do realize that some need medications) and commit to doing it everyday for life, we can accomplish the same things anyone else can. It just takes longer and takes more effort. Recovery is possible for those who believe and do the work to achieve it.
This blog has helped me so much. I was ready to give up today but something told me to hang on a little while longer. I'm fighting through a depressive episode as I write this but I'll do my best to keep going. I now understand that I just have to do things a little differently and a little at a time. Please keep me in your hopes and prayers. I pray for peace for that all of those who are struggling . To those who are figuring it out and who've figured it out, thank you for being an inspiration and for giving me peace of mind in my storm. I'll do my best to keep going. God Bless
Reading these awesome comments have truly been an inspiration to me. I am not bipolar; but I have extreme PTSD and ADHD. I am struggling to finish my Master's Degree at 50 years old; but I am going to finish it no matter how long it takes me.
Natasha, what your doctor said to you about dropping out of school is just so wrong I don't where to even start. There would be more of a psychological toll for NOT finishing the degree. Sorry, but I think the doctor is a hack and glad that you didn't listen to that sort of thing - it's totally unprofessional. Thanks for being such an inspiration!
I am actually looking for a college that my grand daughter can attend. Yes she has Bipolar pretty bad. But, she weighed over 400 pounds and has lost 262 pounds in 16 months on her own....she really wants to fit into society. she is presently on SSI but we all know she does not get much money to live on. She lives in Maryland. Is there a school that she can attend there. How much would the cost be? Will she get help paying for it. From what I read above, it looks like they would give her plenty of time to get through college.
I just want to help her and she is very anxious to "Become" someone. She feels like "Nothing" and wants to succeed in life somehow.
She just does not know where to start. I live in Michigan and she lives in Maryland with her "Boyfriend"....
So, I don't know where to start as far as what colleges are willing to do to help people in this situation.
i have bipolar disorder and have taken at least one college course *almost* every semester since right after high school (my first class was "theatre," to take the edge off). I made sure to follow a degree plan.
Now I am going to turn 34 this year and need four more classes to finish my Master's Degree. Of course I still would never take four classes at once! I take two at a time and have learned to get As! my undergrad was Religious Studies with a minor in Asian Studies, and my Master's is Writing/English literature.
I really like what Jake said a while back about how his intelligence and creativity are responses to living with bipolar not happy symptoms of it.
Intelligence and creativity are not linked to bipolar (or any other mental illness), but they are linked to each other!
I took a little longer going through undergrad, partly due to illness and partly due to me pursuing two degrees. I earned a BA and a BS with well over 130 credits in four and a half years. The only illness I was diagnosed with during this time was depression, my second semester, and even then my GPA did not drop below a 3.5. School was always easy for me in terms of learning of the material. And my parents taught us an awesome work ethic. When I was in school, all I did was school.
I had adhd, untreated, undiagnosed and my depression was actually secondary to that. But see, combined with my work ethic and intelligence, the adhd and ocd balanced each other out.
Then I taught for a couple years before going back to school again, this time for my Master's in Education. That, was a lot of work. But if it's interesting, I like it! And this was all pre-diagnosis, pre-treatment.
I attribute my success to my work ethic, and I am very fortunate (usually) to have the degree of intelligence that I do. It means I can pretty much learn or do whatever I want.
I agree. I love school; I love learning. I enjoy being intellectually stimulated. My intelligent adhd and bipolar brain need it, otherwise I would just be spinning with no direction.
Go to school while you can, if you can. More than a dozen years shelling out to "talk to a stranger", the second or third "expert" will tell you that you're okay. Try and read Thomas Ssasz, it will explain the handful of "labels" have expanded into thousands over 40 years. Realize that you are altering your DNA. Maybe it works for you, to each their own. Try avoid b
I have been diagnosed with Bipolar from the age of 20 I’m 23 now. I have never had a good experience at school well the grades wasn’t bad. I feel if I was diagnosed from an earlier age I would have had answers to a lot of questions. I have been through a lot in life in general; I have also been in and out of education.
I feel being open to teachers with my illness I get mixed feedback they tend to judge me straight away as lazy. I have even had a teacher say in class if you can’t handle the stress then this course isn’t for you, I feel that was directed at me. That doesn’t mean some aren’t very helpfully with extra time extent deadline and exams.
I just want to say it isn’t easy living with this illness especially when there’s a big stigma surrounding mental illness. I feel if this world accepts people with mental illness there would be a lower limit of suicide rate.
It sounds to me like you just need to work the system a bit more in your favour. For example, why take five course when you know you can't handle it? Why not take three, or two? Focus on what you _can_ do instead of trying to meet a bar that's nor reasonable right now.
Get a note from you psychiatrist when you need accommodations at school. A teacher can't override that. Use your school's student union as a backup. They usually have an ombudsman who can help if you have a dispute with a professor.
When I went through school I had to pair down classes and it took me long to get my degree, but I got one. That never would have happened if I would have tried taking five courses a semester though.
And try to find a support group as well. They can help you, emotionally, through some of these challenges.
I know it feels like you're hitting a brick wall and that you'll never conquer it, but that's not true, just try to find your limits and work within them. Maybe correspondence classes are for you, so you can take longer to finish them. Think outside of the norm. You can make it, you just need to adjust your plan.
I was finally properly diagnosed bipolar at 21(year ago) after suffering from mixed episodes that led me to be hospitalized 5 times and then a 9 month stay at a residential hospital. Even though I'v managed to stay out of the hospital and sometimes reasonably functioning, I've only earned credit for one class out of my four full-time semesters. I always end up withdrawing despite my best attempts and intentions. School is my life, I love it, but every semester I can't seem to handle the stress.
I really don't know how I am going to manage this for the rest of my life. In high school and as a freshman teachers tended to be more compassionate, but now, they don't seem to care or want to make accommodations. Facing discrimination and rejection after seeking guidance and help is extremely heartbreaking a discouraging.
I agree, a substantial amount of teacher's aren't understanding; only one teacher out of five this semester seems willing to accommodate.
How does one with bipolar disorder become successful in a world where everyone expects you to function normally. Employers and Education professionals have a general negative judgmental attitude towards people who need 'time'. I know a lot of them think we are lazy, irresponsible and can't get our shit together when in reality we try try try so so effing hard but end up facing an episode, not 'success'.
Look, I want to teach High School English, but how will I ever get there at this rate. No one around me understands that I'm not a regular person, I can't get there as fast as everyone else, like they expect. Right now it doesn't seem like I'm going to get there, and it doesn't seem like a life-long struggle with this is worth it. And it's the most terrible because I want to impact a kid, provide support when they can't get it at home, like my teacher's in high school did for me. I have the immense capacity to love and empathize but I feel I may never reach my goals to give this to the adolescents that need it. I can't succeed in school, I'm unreliable at work---will I ever figure it out? I just really need some help, all the therapy, all the meds,and all the lifestyle changes, and I feel It always comes back and KABOOM.
I am so heartened to read the article and all of the comments. The beauty and tenacity of all with bipolar and their family and friends remind me of yesteryear when everyone drew together and helped each family member and community member in all variety of life experiences. It is true that we are all only human. Sometimes today's culture falls short and needs to be reminded of what has always worked in this world with God's help.
Your sister's experience at Columbia sounds awful, incredibly discriminatory, and unfair. It reminds me of an article I read by a Yale alum who was forced to leave Yale after being hospitalized for bipolar disorder. http://www.esmewang.com/2011/02/why-i-left-yale-mental-illness-higher-education/
That's the reason why one should never voluntarily tell a professor or employer. I have found that some people, if they know something about mental health, can be very compassionate, while others are ignorant and discriminating - even if they are highly accomplished professionals in their fields. Mental health is not well understood. You never know which you'll get. Even those who you think would understand might treat you very different afterwards. In my opinion, it's not worth the risk.
Does Columbia have an Office of Accessible Education? It might have been better to go there rather than to a dean.
I went to Uni, didn't get my degree. Was bipolar a factor? YES. But it was undiagnosed and therefore untreated. I still see it as unfinished business and one day I will do it, but now I am in a position to do so the only obstacle in the way is my fear of failing again. You CAN get a degree if you have bipolar, but only if you acknowledge it and accept treatment and support.
Have read a few of your articles on the bipolar burble and here, and you are an awesome writer! I identify very strongly with many of your articles, but more importantly you tell it like it is, you write to the point (digging the giagantic headers) and you also write critically and intellectually. You don't just quote some imaginary studies and say that research has shown this without actually having read the research articles yourself.
I think I will be reading more of your blog in the future, I just had to express how impressed I was by your writing...
Great article. I first became ill in my first year of college. It took 7 years to graduate with several hospitalizations. My key was to NOT GIVE UP!!! I was fortunate to have a good support system. I later went on to earn my credential in substance abuse counseling and a Masters in Student Personnel Administration. All this to say that by learning to manage my BP I have been able to achieve many of my goals. Recovery is possible. Check out my blog at: http://workingonwellnessbuffalo.blogspot.com
What a great conversation!
So many people think that a "mental" disorder is an "intelligence" disorder, which is so unfair to us. It's that perception that keeps people from disclosing their disease for fear of being labeled "less than".
Yes, I have bipolar, have been hospitalized twice and have taken meds for over 10 years. But I also have an English degree from an Ivy League university, an MBA from a top-10 program, and a 6-figure job with a promising career in marketing. I have lots of things that the average person doesn't, some really good, some really crappy, but things even out in the end.
Perhaps it was harder for me to get through school and work than for people without my disease. Maybe it was easier for me because I'm smarter than the average person. Whatever. Nothing worth having isn't worth working hard for.
Another great post, Natasha. I am going to forward this to my son's therapist.
While I do not have BP, I suffer from it through my son.
But I have also known a few psychotherapists with Bi-Polar, and many very good, competent and successful. They have all finished at least a master's level training. The only caveat to their professional life is that they occasionally take "vacations" on recommendation from their colleagues that know about their condition and help them get help when they need it. As a professor I teach Intro to Psych to about 250 student each semester and there is an average of 3-4 students who admit to being bi-polar in each class (for about 18 students each semester.) I give the message that you gave here to every class.
Great article Natasha! You made me smile with the advice to
"drop classes - you’re not going to have the same bandwidth as everyone else so stop pretending that you do."
I had just decided today to drop a class and will now take another extra year to finish my degree. Which doesn't sound like much on its own, but I have had to do this several times over the years. Will end up taking me 10 years to finish (along with having 3 children)
I should have never enrolled in full time this semester, yet I thought if i can just swing it this way and push thru???? The only pushing thru I'm doing is to the other side of life.
Yes, I will stop pretending :)
In my first semester at college at 18 years old, mania surfaced; but no one at the school knew what was happening to me. In the second semester, I was sent home. My parents wanted me to see a psychiatrist; but I was flying so high then that I saw absolutely nothing unusual about my behavior, and I refused to go.
Over the next 38 years, I went back to college seven different times. Some semesters, I actually completed a course; but mostly I just quit going to classes, either so manic that I came up with a “grander” project or so depressed that I didn’t care about school anymore.
Five years ago, I was diagnosed (rapid cycling) and began medication and psychotherapy - and went back to school for the eighth time.
I can only handle two classes at a time; and even then, it’s been very difficult. One semester, I had to completely withdraw from the University. Four times, I stopped going to one of the two classes because of the stress, unwilling to talk to the professor about it. Of course, I failed those classes. Three times I said: “That’s it. I’m never going back.” But, when the next semester rolled around, I’d be back at it again.
If I had been following the four tips above, and many other ones that have been suggested (including registering with the Office of Disabilities Services), maybe it would not have been so difficult.
As you’ve probably guessed by now, I’m 61 years old. After this semester, I have only one more class to go! At this point, getting the degree is not about getting a job. It’s about not giving up.
I've had to all four of these tips already. My first year in college was when the bipolar symptoms started popping up, and as it continued it was getting more and more difficult to deal with everyday life, let alone schoolwork. I continued this into my second year and became seriously overwhelemed. I ended up extending my program (which is common even among mentally well students given the nature and workload of the course), and have since been discussing with my instructors about my mental illness, because they do seem to care how I'm functioning.
This year, so far so good. I'm feeling a lot better than I did last year, and I'm pumped for actually finishing and going out into the workforce. I just hope that they see that too.
I just finished a college course for a Certificate in Medical Receptionist at 59, with rapid-cycling bi-polar II. It took me a year instead of 9 months, and there were days I didn't think I could do it. But with constant cheerleading from friends and my counselor I made it! I realize this is not a real degree, but wanted something quick and sensible to be able to find work. (No, not yet!) I agree with the working harder part, although some of that was my age as well. I had to be very organized and set priorities clearly, but am proud of my 3.91 GPA!
I struggled with school and education when I was younger. Looking back, my mental health was a major factor. I now have an MBA and my graduation picture sits alongside a photo of my wedding; two things I'd thought impossible when being held on a section 10 years ago.
It might be worthwhile to point out that some colleges and universities, despite public statements to the contrary, *do* discriminate against mental illness issues. My sister, who has both bipolar disorder and depression, attended graduate school at a certain Ivy League university in New York City (that ought to narrow it down, huh?). During her time there she became so despondent that she attempted suicide, and spent some time in the mental health ward of the hospital recuperating from the attempt. When she went to the dean of her college and freely admitted what had happened -- at the same time averring her desire to rise above it and finish her degree -- she began to receive intense pressure to drop out of school, not only from the dean but from other professors, who had been notified of my sister's (private) discussion with the dean. She went from being well-liked in the program to being told, to her face, that some people just didn't have what it took to "cut it" in that field. She was passed over for multiple fellowships, and had to take out crippling student loans to finish school -- but the point is, she DID finish school and is now working in her chosen field.
Here's the point, I suppose: if you have any kind of mental disability and you're attending a prestigious university that is more concerned with enhancing its reputation than with furthering your education, don't be forthcoming with them. They will attempt to penalize you for it.
It took twelve years between my high school graduation and university graduation because of years sitting out. I had no problems making almost perfect grades, but I would get to a point where I just had to stop for a while. It can be done, you just have to keep trying. My personal life has been much harder than my academic one.
Hi, reading all your comments on your life experiences studying has made me wonder. I have a question. I'm 45 years old. From 3 I used to have brain fog. Then high school and college, I struggled to study but found I could never sit still for 1 hour and I forget 40 pages of information I studies. Over years it worsen my memory recollection and jeopardise my jobs. I took computer science but found difficulty. While working, I took animation and found the thought to sit for hours just to create a perfect character to walk run took me months and yet I quit coz all course mates finished while I started hating it. I'm thinking of going back to study. Diagnosed 2013 while working at age 38 yrs. On medication but memory loss is bad and mind runs off. I would like to ask in my scenario since I cant focus on conversation or reading or listening more 5 seconds and memory loss brain fog, can I actually study a degree and complete it. Sorry for beating around the bush.
I'm sorry you're having such issues with memory, brain fog and attention. I recommend you talk to a doctor about these issues. Medication or a medication change may help. As to whether you can complete a degree, I'm sorry, I can't answer that. It sounds like it may be quite challenging for you. The most important thing is probably that you really enjoy what you're studying. That will likely help you want to put in the work to complete a degree.
- Natasha Tracy
Geeze, of the 2000+ persons with BP that I have worked with in my career In can see no corrolation between greatness, intelligence or art. I could say that it's not very intellegent to go off meds and you don't look very great in a seclusion room smear feces on the wall (a bit exaggerated but that's the art part). Me I am a middle road bipolar, used to be smarter when I was younger but arn't we all? But meds and illness take thier toll. I have had clients who topped out at macdonalds and executives and drs all equally humbled by the bipolar god.
I have to say that a lot of this also depends on the kind of support that each school offers. Many times there is a shortage of personnel in the counseling/health center so that a student has to be in a crisis before they can get intervention from a psychiatrist. Some schools have strict rules that say that students are required to take leaves of absence or leave school altogether. Some schools may also have "Active Minds" chapters which do a lot to promote mental wellness on college campuses. Unfortunately it sounds like you had a run-in with a bigoted MD so it's good that you succeeded despite them.
I was not diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder until I was several years after earning my Masters Degree in Divinity and being ordained as a minister.
So I know that anyone can earn their degree.
That being said, I could seriously relate to much of what is said in this article.
I wish I had known these things sooner, it would have helped.
Thank you, Natasha, for writing such an informative article to help others.
"...my creative mind is a response to living with bipolar disorder not a symptom. My intelligence the same. There is no correlation between it and this sucky illness."
Brilliant way of saying that. I've thought the same thing.
Good to hear you're doing so well at school. But you will have to leave sometime ;)
No offence to anyone but my creative mind is a response to living with bipolar disorder not a symptom. My intelligence the same. There is no correlation between it and this sucky illness.
With that said. I agree with Natasha it is all about pacing yourself. I have a business school diploma, chefs papers and I am currently going to school again.
The key is not to load your plate too high and to communicate with administrators and instructors.
I failed every test until I had the balls to say I cannot do tests and pass with other people in the room, I am too distracted. Now in a quiet near dark room I ace most tests.
I had a Doctor tell me I should not quit smoking, the risks of me becoming unstable was riskier then smoking(seriously). I quit and remained intact.
I think if anyone wants education they should go for it. I love going to school, I don't want to leave.
There is a lot of mischief in the world of research, not to mention semantics. Many great writers are alcoholics; but being an alcoholic does not increase your chances of being a great writer. - According to research I've been pointed to for year after year - bipolar disorder tracks intelligence - which is to say - there is a slightly higher probability of a bipolar person being clever than being a dunce. - As you point out - how you define intelligence makes a huge difference. -- As to the linkage between bipolar and creativity - I become infuriated. Members of our community who should know better have been perpetuating this twaddle for decades, with disastrous results. As with intelligence, there is a slightly higher chance that a bipolar person is creative - on average.
Well, it would have probably been the best dogs playing poker ever.
Just an FYI, I've written about the research, and we don't skew brighter than average, actually less so in many regards. Some of us are high-functioning, some not so. http://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/breakingbipolar/2011/06/are-people-with-bipolar-disorde…
And see, I don't think we're great. I just think we're people.
Imagine if Van Gogh's doctor told him, "You're way too crazy to paint a masterpiece like 'Crows On A Wheatfield' - why don't you stay with easier stuff like sad clowns with liquid eyes or dogs playing poker?"
As a rule, bipolars skew brighter than average and are frequently very high functioning. That said, I like your final sentence very much. Expect speed bumps and adjust for them, your path to greatness is likely to be off the main road.