#WorldMentalHealthDay Navigating University with Bipolar Disorder: My Story
#WorldMentalHealthDay Navigating University with Bipolar Disorder: My Story
TRIGGER WARNING: SUICIDE IDEATION / SELF HARM
My mother and I have a running joke that my final grade doesn’t tell the story of what I’ve been through.
What have I been through? Ten years of undiagnosed bipolar II disorder six of which I spent in universities.
The six years began in June 2015 when I enrolled in law school and regretted doing so three days after my programme started.
I remember feeling completely apathetic towards the coursework and couldn’t see myself pursuing a career in Law years later. However, it would be one year before I transferred to a programme I was passionate about.
So why choose Law in the first place? To pursue a “more prestigious” degree after struggling in high school – my way of seeking academic redemption.
I was a top performer throughout primary school but when I started high school I struggled to adjust to the new learning format and got significantly lower grades. This jarring difference made me question my value as a person and triggered my very first depressive episode.
Bipolar disorder is characterised by two mood states; depressive and hypomanic/manic episodes. I live with bipolar II disorder so I oscillate between hypomania and longer more chronic depressive episodes.
My depressive episodes look like:
- Low appetite, low energy, indecisiveness and persistent crying spells
- Feelings of hopelessness and irrational guilt– feeling undeserving of and guilty for wanting a fulfilling life as a writer when many people are dying or lack basic needs
- Suicide ideation – after persistent negative thoughts I begin to experience acute physical pain in my mind; pain that I feel will only stop if I stop feeling altogether. This is especially prominent during a mixed episode whereby hypomania and depression happen simultaneously
For me, a hypomanic episode looks like:
- Pressured speech – talking to everyone about everything going on in my mind without giving them a chance to chime in or making room for the conversations they’d like to have
- Racing thoughts – a continuous stream of thoughts that ends with a mental crash after the hypomanic episode ends
- Increased motor activity – voracious reading, writing and/or research while avoiding other pressing tasks for work or school and taking up many new passion projects that I don’t finish
Imagine going through this for six to nine months every single year.
Two months into my law degree I remember I’d only think of death during my Criminal Law class, I also drank myself to sleep sometimes, self-harmed by mixing alcoholic drinks and almost slit my wrists.
When I switched over to Journalism in May 2016 I thought I’d fixed the passion problem but I quickly relapsed into depression thanks to rapid cycling bipolar.
Despite this, the first two semesters included more enjoyable classes that played to my strengths as a writer and critical thinker. I even attended free therapy provided by the school after booking sessions, but failing to show up.
In my first session, my therapist encouraged me to share anything I wanted to as she took down notes. Since I was experiencing suicide ideation, she politely requested me to fill a form providing contact details of my loved ones and assured me she would only reach out to them in case of an emergency.
In the sessions that followed, we tackled one item at a time from her initial assessment. She helped me unpack my childhood trauma and understand how it shaped my negative outlook of the world and affected my ability to regulate my emotions. Although I was stable for about a month, things were going to get worse before they got better.
Growing up in an African mostly religious environment meant my initial cries for help were met with fear, and urges to pray against what was considered a demonic attack
2017 was the “dark year”. In the first semester, ADHD made it difficult for me to keep up with school work and later, Adenomyosis triggered back problems and accompanying depression that saw me fail to complete one class.
The following semester I experienced my first panic attack after an exchange with my lecturer over a mock exam. I struggled to breathe as I walked away from his office, the ground started spinning and I rushed to the toilet and sobbed until my next class.
At this point, I had missed two exams and the worsening depression made it difficult to read for my mock exams. Honestly, I wasn’t sure I’d ever finish school.
Seeking a Diagnosis
In July 2020, I had a hypomanic episode that ended in another severe depressive episode but for a change, I decided to see a psychiatrist after consulting with a friend who was seeing one for bipolar disorder.
After two different psychiatric consults I was formally diagnosed with bipolar disorder, ADHD and Anxiety and was prescribed:
- Quetiapine – an atypical antipsychotic that improves mood, thinking and behaviour that I still take to date
- Venlafaxine – an antidepressant and anti-anxiety I took for four months
- Lamotrigine – a mood stabiliser I later received, to keep me from falling into depression, which I still take it in my current maintenance phase
At first, I was pensive about taking psychotropic medications mostly due to stigma and lack of information, but after I consulted with my therapist I felt confident about taking them.
Over time, with plenty of psychoeducation, medication has proven to be successful for me alongside therapy and consistent exercise. The latter particularly helps me keep my mood elevated and prevent weight gain associated with Quetiapine – a major side effect for many people.
My single negative experience came when withdrawing from venlafaxine that I share in this post which also includes tips on how to advocate for yourself with psychiatrists.
I’ve also been able to adhere to social rhythm therapy which helps me keep a routine and cognitive behavioural therapy which helps me manage intrusive negative thoughts.
My current markers for wellness are quality sleep, a positive mood, moderate to high energy levels and good appetite. I occasionally track these on a mood application (Thought Diary), and more consistently when I suspect I’m on the cusp of either a hypomanic or depressive episode.
Self-Advocacy in the Face of Religion
Growing up in an African mostly religious environment meant my initial cries for help were met with fear, and urges to pray against what was considered a demonic attack. I was lucky enough to read up on bipolar disorder at a very young age, so this information empowered me to reject those beliefs.
However, it took me five years to see a psychologist and ten to see a psychiatrist because I was ashamed of looking ill (not cursed). Thus, I encourage you to:
- Jot down your symptoms or experiences and monitor them as you prepare to seek help
- Listen to mental health champions online to feel a sense of belonging and educate yourself
- Identify psychosocial services in your area and make enquiries
- If you’re comfortable, inform a trusted loved one about your decision to see a mental health professional
- Attend that first session with an open mind proud of yourself for choosing to take care of your mental wellness
I know all of this can feel scary at first, but you don’t have to struggle for long before you earn the right to seek continuous help and/or take medication.
2018 gave me a chance to claw my way back from academic struggle. I discovered academic research through a class and I’m becoming an expert at it. This and other PR classes utilised my strengths so I managed to resuscitate my GPA and confidence over time.
However, there’s a lot more that universities can do to create a mental health-friendly school environment. In my latest study on mental health communication among university students I recommend:
- More staff involvement – train lecturers on how to initiate and navigate mental health conversations in the classroom
- Develop a school mental health policy that provides details for academic leniency and coursework adjustments for students in crisis
- Peer hubs – these could be internet support groups led by peer counsellors and moderated by a school psychologist
In 2017, when I was battling bipolar depression, ADHD and Anxiety simultaneously, a different type of assessment like an oral exam at a later date would’ve been more ideal. Despite this, I’m grateful for the options to reduce my course load and take semester breaks that helped me finish my programme successfully.
Remember the joke about how my grades don’t really tell my story? Well, I graduated with honours in late September 2021.
Now you know both my grade and my story.
Written By: Wairimu Ndung’u – a writer, researcher and mental illness advocate living in Kenya, who writes extensively on psychoeducation topics like symptom and medication management and suicide awareness. You can read more of her work here and follow her on twitter and instagram
For more information and support:
The Black, African and Asian Therapy Network has a directory of therapists of Black, African, Asian or Caribbean heritage
Black Minds Matter connects Black individuals and families to free mental health support provided by Black therapists
Whitney Blacksmith accredited BABCP Specialist Psychotherapist and founder of Therapy4MySistahs, specialising in Therapy for Black Women and Women of Colour
Illustration By: Alyssa Kiefer