‘I Don’t Want My Friends to Think I’m Crazy': The Stigma of Bipolar on the College Campus

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Mental illness is a prevalent issue on college campuses that often goes unseen and unacknowledged. When I decided I wanted to write an article about students at my university with bipolar disorder, I ran into the difficulty of finding subjects to interview. I asked around my fellow students to see if anyone knew someone who might be willing to speak to me.

“My friend is dating this one crazy girl,” one of my friends jokingly told me. “She’s so bipolar. You should try interviewing her.”

This just further proved my point: people my age don’t know the first thing about mental illness. “Bipolar” is not a term to be thrown around lightly, and it’s certainly not an appropriate way to describe an emotional girl in a relationship.

College students in their early 20s are at a crossroad in their lives, a point where they must make important decisions that will impact their success in the future. Meanwhile, they are constructing an identity of their own while managing socialization with peers and maintaining healthy relationships. It’s a complicated time, a time that can be further complicated by dealing with the obstacles presented by mental illness.

I finally found my interview subjects — Luke* and Ralph*, two students at the University of Oregon. They both expressed a fear of receiving negative responses from their peers had they known they were bipolar. “I don’t want my friends to think I’m crazy,” Ralph told me.

When I heard Luke and Ralph describing their experiences leading up to their diagnosis, it didn’t seem “crazy” to me. Trouble with the opposite sex, difficulty concentrating in school and watching Netflix all day describes the lives of a lot of college students. But when Luke told me he had made plans to commit suicide, and Ralph told me he dropped out of school, the importance of seeking help became more evident.

Clinical therapist and social worker Erica Freeman specializes in treating individuals with bipolar disorder. The disorder piqued her interest after she entered the professional field; she did extensive research into alternative treatments to medicine. Freeman has established a method of therapy that combines four approaches for treatment.

The first approach Freeman employs is early symptom recognition. This is intended to teach the individual to recognize signs of an impending mood episode so that they may seek treatment. These symptoms range from feelings of hopelessness (depression) to unreasonable optimism (mania).

The second form of treatment is cognitive behavioral therapy. Freeman works to change negative thought patterns into something more positive and constructive. This also involves the implementation of a direct change in behavior and learning how to distract oneself when feeling bad.

The third approach is interpersonal social rhythm therapy. This involves working on improving the patient’s communication skills and regulating their emotions to lower their stress levels.

The last step in the process is holistic/meditative/mindfulness therapy. This can involve meditation and yoga. These are approaches that Freeman believes combined can be proven effective when treating bipolar disorder, and that one approach is not always sufficient.

“It’s a diagnosis that carries a great deal of stigma,” Freeman stated. “…With every age there’s the struggle: ‘How can I manage this diagnosis and have a life?’ But it’s important to recognize that it’s…possible to manage it effectively enough that it doesn’t have to change their ability to do anything they want to do in their life.”

Both of the students I spoke with are now on track to graduate and have experienced an improvement in their ability to remain in control of their moods and subsequent behaviors. Luke speaks to a psychiatrist monthly and a psychologist weekly, and both men take medication as part of their treatment.

“It’s about accepting…your life and letting go of the residual negative stimuli,” Ralph told me. “I am constantly making the conscious decision to be who I want to be and taking responsibility for my actions. It’s all about willpower.”

In addition to seeking therapy, Freeman recommends checking out “The Depression Workbook” by Mary Ellen Copeland, an author who has experienced mental illness challenges firsthand. Freeman handed me her copy of the book and I opened it to one of the last pages, where it states: “Remind yourself how good you are, and how good it is to be alive,” something that we can all keep in mind on our search for happiness and success. Challenges in our lives will reveal themselves at regular intervals, but with support from the community and an understanding of what resources are available individuals can overcome these obstacles and ultimately, thrive.

*Name has been changed at the request of the source.

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