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Living with Bipolar as a Teen: School

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Updated April 03, 2009

Editor's Note: This article was guest authored by Dan, a teen with bipolar disorder, who offers advice based on his experiences in school. We hope you find his advice useful, but keep in mind it may not apply to all teens with bipolar disorder.

One of the biggest challenges a teen with bipolar disorder faces is attending school. The ways things are handled vary depending on the school you attend. In a public school, for example, teens are eligible for all sorts of assistance, from having an aide to assist with their ever-changing moods to having their schedules and classes tailored to their emotional needs. Private schools are only required to accommodate teens with bipolar disorder under the Americans with Disabilities Act, in which case the school has to accommodate any physical needs, like medications during school and side effects from such medications. The last kind of school is home schooling, where all accommodations and needs can be met. I feel strongly that teens with bipolar can succeed in any of these schooling environments. This article will focus on living day to day in the classroom with bipolar disorder, stable or unstable, what to do if you lose control of your emotions, how to set up a support network and the importance of doing so, along with other important topics.

Should You Tell the School?

First, should you tell the school about your bipolar condition? Yes, you should. Generally, this should be done before the school year starts. It is best to contact the guidance counselor, if available, or otherwise a principal, vice principal, or any other member of the administration. You should tell the school about your bipolar disorder and explain to them how it affects you in the classroom. At this discussion you should present any doctors' notes you have in regard to medication during school or accommodations needed due to medication side effects (such as needing access to water and bathrooms). Teachers should be notified before school starts about your bipolar disorder and how to handle things you were to lose control of your emotions (discussed below).

Your Support System

Teens with bipolar need a support system or network, whether they are stable or not; these can be set up with the school rather easily. You should meet with your guidance counselor within the first few weeks of school. Talk with the counselor in general about how things are going and discuss any problems you may be having inside or outside of school. Ask if the school has a Student Assistance Program, as you should know who the teachers and staff on the team are. If the school doesn’t have a Student Assistance Program, you should make yourself comfortable with teachers and staff. If there is a teacher you feel comfortable in confiding in, you should by all means discuss how you feel or any problems with that person. While you are with your guidance counselor, you should set up a plan in case emotions go awry in the classroom. An example of this would be if you put your head down on your desk in order to collect your thoughts. You shouldn’t be given any trouble from the teacher for this. If you should feel you can longer stay in control of your emotions, you should be allowed to leave the classroom freely. No questions should be asked, as by this time your emotions are already stretched, and anything could set you off emotionally.

Establish a Safe Spot

A safe spot should be established in the school, generally in the nurse’s office. A safe spot is where a teen with bipolar disorder is allowed to go into a meltdown; also, efforts should be made to calm the teen down. The teen should be given the option of calling parents to talk and/or talk with a trusted adult in the building. Once the teen is calmed down, he or she should be given the option of returning to class. When returning to class, it should be at a time when the least amount attention be brought to the teen.

Having a meltdown or episode in class is one of the hardest and embarrassing things that can happen to a teen. Every measure should be taken so that you don't have an episode during class, but rather can leave the room in time without undue attention. However, if you do lose control of emotions during class time, you should quietly leave. If you are questioned by other students, you can just say that you didn’t feel good and leave it at that. You should not feel obligated to tell your life story as to what happened, as most people simply won't understand.

Remember: High School Is Often a Challenge - for Any Teen

These are just some suggestions and ideas for making life in high school easier for teens with bipolar. Some teens make it through high school without being affected much by their bipolar, while for other teens with bipolar disorder, high school may be four very long years. Arranging a good support network and making sure your teachers are aware of needed accommodations will help ease the way.

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