Beating Bipolar Depression in Grad School

This week’s blog post was written by AMHC reader Sam.

Before I entered university, I had the notion that it would be the best experience of my life. I would be a top student, have an active social life, and be involved in all sorts of exciting and new activities. I believed that if I set my mind to it, I could be anything I wanted: a researcher, a doctor, a lawyer, or maybe all three. And that’s exactly how the beginning of my academic career went. I easily transitioned into university and was able to maintain my grades. I made a large group of friends that I regularly spent time with. I volunteered in my free time.

Something in me started to change

However, something in me started to change. I chalked it up to the stress of university. Slowly, I started cutting back my responsibilities in order to better cope. First, I stopped volunteering, and then I stopped socializing outside of class. I started berating myself over anything I could think of. I started crying more frequently. My mantra became “I’m just tired” and I repeated it over to myself and to anyone who questioned the obvious change in me. This was not a lie, as I was not sleeping well. But, it wasn’t necessarily the truth either. I began experiencing a great deal of anxiety and regret throughout the day that made it difficult to keep up with all my classes. My thoughts became much darker and it was almost impossible to keep them off of my mind.

In my mind, it seemed that there was no point in seeing a doctor

As my depression progressed, I began to experience delusions. Slipping deeper into depression I somehow came to the conclusion that I had an incurable disease and that this was my well-deserved punishment for my “sins” (my perceived wrongdoings). Whenever something came up that had to do with my condition, I saw confirmation that I was indeed dying and being punished. Shows on television and internet ads were placed there to tell me I was dying. Songs were played on the radio to me that I was dying and that I should harm myself. I obsessed constantly and was only able to sleep a few hours a night. In my mind, it seemed that there was no point in seeing a doctor. I felt that there was nothing they could do anyways. I couldn’t tell anyone what I thought, because I was worried that they would find out about all my sins and wrongdoing, and agree that I should be dying from this disease.

I didn’t think it could, or would, get this bad

It was during this episode in my first year of university that I would be diagnosed with bipolar disorder. This was not a surprise, as I had my suspicions after experiencing what I eventually recognized to be mania, and moderate depression thereafter. However, I didn’t think it could, or would, get this bad. Up until this point, I didn’t actually didn’t think I was ill. I thought what I had experienced were isolated events that I had handled reasonably well on my own. It was a diagnosis I couldn’t accept at the time, and still have a great deal of trouble accepting. Even with a brief medication trial and psychotherapy, it would be almost a year until I started to feel like myself again.

Shortly before starting my grad degree, I stopped taking medication

In spite of this diagnosis, and a rather tumultuous personal life, I had a moderately successful undergraduate tenure characterized by mostly good grades, a few notable scholarships, and a prestigious research opportunity. However, that is not to say that I did not struggle through it. I completed my undergraduate degree largely unmedicated, which in hindsight was a bad decision as it created a vast amount of unnecessary stress and suffering. When I was medicated, things generally ran more smoothly and stress was much better tolerated. Shortly before starting my graduate degree, I stopped taking the medication to which I’d been regularly adhering for a year. This decision, made with my doctor’s permission, was motivated by the fact that the benefits of medication seemed to be outweighed by negative side effects, as well as the odd discomfort I felt during periods of emotional equilibrium. Things went well fairly well in my first year as a graduate student, and as my research began to pick up and responsibilities were piled on, I stopped going to psychotherapy too. As you may have guessed, this was a poor decision on my part.

I knew something wasn’t right

Things slowly started coming apart, both at school and at home. While I should have recognized the signs of a returning depression, I somehow missed it once again, even though I knew something wasn’t right at the back of my mind. Perhaps in some sort of desperate effort, I tried to take up yoga, as a good friend swore by it to reduce anxiety and depression. But even my daily yoga practice couldn’t fend off the dark thoughts brewing in my mind.

Looking from below the blue water’s surface, countless air bubbles of different sizes float upwards towards s stream of sunlight

I knew I needed help, but I was scared

On a walk home from yoga practice, I became convinced that I had committed a horrendous crime (with no basis in reality), that I needed to turn myself into the police, and that I deserved to be killed by the other inmates for what I had done. This episode progressed much like depression I had experienced during my first year in university. Things started appearing in the news and on the internet that I interpreted as signs telling me these thoughts were all true and that everyone knew what I had done. I started to fear that the police were monitoring my computer for evidence that I had committed a crime or was planning on committing another crime. After many sleepless nights, I eventually broke down and told my boyfriend, who is the most rational, sympathetic, and patient person I have ever met. He tried unsuccessfully to help me reality-test my thoughts. I didn’t understand how he could not see that I was a horrible criminal and deserved to die. By this point, my mind was plagued not only by pathological guilt, but also thoughts of suicide. I knew I needed help, but I was too scared to tell anyone else what was going on in case they believed me and sent me to jail. Eventually, I was able to see my psychiatrist, who quickly realized what was going on.  I started medication and after about a month started to feel better.

Can my supervisor tell that I have bipolar disorder?

It’s been over a year since my last episode, and I feel much more like my old self again. However, the past episode has lead to some serious life questioning. Is academia really right for me?  Can I continue to handle the high stress and be able to manage my mood? Will I ever be able to hold down a normal job? Can my supervisor tell that I have bipolar disorder, even though I have never outright admitted to it? Am I going to have another episode? Based on my history, the answer to the last question is almost inevitably yes, I will eventually have another episode.

Living with a serious mental illness as a young adult has proven to be challenging, but not insurmountable

Being diagnosed with bipolar disorder has left me with more questions than it has given me answers. Because many of these questions can only be answered by the future, it is difficult to plan far ahead in my personal and professional life. I would still like to believe that if I put my mind to it, I could be anything I want: a researcher, a doctor, a lawyer, or maybe all three. But, I am also aware that the stress of pursuing even one of the above is likely to precipitate another episode. It is difficult to accept that my future may not be exactly how I imagined it and it is frustrating to know that I am sometimes delayed in reaching my goals because of my bipolar disorder. Living with a serious mental illness as a young adult has proven to be challenging, but not insurmountable. There is still a lot I have yet to learn on how best to manage my condition while striving towards a fulfilling life.

Is anyone else in the early years of their condition (or diagnosis) and grappling with similar questions?

Are there others who have dealt with this and are able to comment on what has worked for them?

Leave your comments for Sam below!


3 thoughts on “Beating Bipolar Depression in Grad School

  1. For a PhD candidate who has just been diagnosed with Bipolar I, this was very reassuring to read. It’s good to read that I’m not alone.


  2. I have always struggled with mental health problems, but it was in my Junior year as an undergraduate that I was diagnosed with Bipolar. I finished my undergraduate moderately succesfully. I was on and off medications and in and out of therapy and there was on week long hospitalization. I tried to join the peace corps after graduation, but I was rejected. I started on my Master’s, but halfway through my first semester I got mono and dropped out. I took three years off after that.
    And that’s when addiction really took hold of my life. I always drank too much but the levels after graduation steadily rose and then it became other things. And then I was hospitalized again. And I decided to try for my master’s again. It took forever to convince myself I was good enough for graduate school, but the acceptance letter came and proved my doubts wrong. I had to sober up a lot before I started I started graduate school last semester. Halfway through my first semester I left my abusive relationship. Which was great. But I also started drinking a lot again and using drugs again. I am now working on my second semester and I do not feel like this is for me. I have a hard time maintaining my mental health when I have no stress. Those three years I spent off I struggled non stop with my bipolar. Now it seems insurmountable. Medication is not an option anymore. I have tried them all and I hate them all. Some have cause irreperable damage to my body (thanks, lithium). I wonder if I will ever be reliable or be able to hold down a job. I look at my bipolar non-addict mother and she has never had a job for more than six months. I always wanted to be something great. Science has always been my passion. But I wonder if academia is right for me. I do not know what I will do if I cannot be a scientist.
    I feel your pain, Sam. I do not have answers. I look at my peers and I want so badly to be more like them. I want to be more reliable and more functional, but I am unable to change.


    1. I am also in science and I understand how demanding graduate degrees in that faculty can be. Struggling with a mood disorder makes it all the more difficult to balance long hours in the lab with other responsibilities.

      I’m sorry to hear you haven’t found a medication that’s right for you. I know there are many unpleasant side effects (weight gain and somnolence to name a few) and that it can take a while to find one (or a combination) that’s right for you. I haven’t found one I like or am willing to adhere to either! There are also many other options to look into to help manage your mood (and substance use) such as psychotherapy (there are so many different types!), support groups (in the US, NAMI or DBSA), and newer treatments such as repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation.

      After writing the above article, I began a PhD. However, I’ve found the stress difficult to cope with. Whether it was anxiety, depression, or something else, I found it next to impossible to complete my daily work and was getting very little accomplished towards my thesis. Ultimately, I recently decided it was best to take a medical leave to help manage my mood and anxiety. I feel disappointed and ashamed for not being able to perform to my own or my supervisor’s expectations (I have not disclosed my mood disorder to my new supervisor, but they have their suspicions). This will be the first time I have taken break since I began university, and I am nervous about how I will deal with all the free time. However, I believe a leave was the best choice for my mental health. With encouragement from my psychiatrist, boyfriend, and friends, I hope to be able to use this time to focus on healing and feeling better. I do not know if I will continue with the PhD after this, but I now have lots of free time to weigh my options!

      It takes a lot of strength to continue working towards goals when you have a mental illness. You should be proud that you went back to graduate school – that is an accomplishment itself. But, please know that it’s important to make time for self-care. There is no shame in taking another leave of absence to get your mood disorder and substance use back in control. Making that sort of decision takes a lot of strength and bravery too. When these aspects of your life are more controlled, I think the rest will come much easier.

      All the best!



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