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Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder is a mental illness involving moods that can swing from overly high and irritable (mania) to sad and hopeless (depressed), and then back again, with periods of normal mood in between.
The essential feature of bipolar disorder is a course of one or more manic or mixed episodes. Often students have also had one or more major depressive episodes. A person in a manic episode will exhibit boundless energy, ambition, and self-esteem and may also demonstrate risk-taking behavior and irritability. Alternately, major depressive episodes are characterized by depressed (low) mood, loss of pleasure in previously enjoyed activities, changes in appetite and psychomotor activity; difficulty concentrating, thinking, and making decisions; and exceptionally low self-esteem demonstrated by negative self-statements. A mixed episode has the features of both many times in rapid succession. Medication is successful in controlling the condition but often takes a substantial period of time to determine what combination of medications will work.

Observing Bipolar Disorder in the Classroom

Faculty might observe the following characteristics in students with Bipolar disorder:

  • Periods when they show a lack of interest or engagement in class
  • Distinct, severe changes in mood (from persistently sad or flat, to active or anxious)
  • Problems making decisions and concentrating in class
  • Poor class attendance
  • Negative self-statements
  • Excessive activity and physical motor restlessness
  • Impulsivity (high-risk behavior, beginning an inordinate number of new projects)
  • Inflated self-esteem and estimation of abilities, grandiosity
  • Problems remembering or organizing information
  • Difficulty meeting deadlines
  • Difficulty handling stress or emotions


Related Functional Characteristics

Anxiety : Students with bipolar disorder may have panic attacks and experience side effects from medication which alters their ability to handle emotional or stressful situations.

Attentional Underfocus : Students with bipolar disorder may experience attentional underfocus because their manic or depressive thoughts interfere with their ability to focus on relevant tasks.

Distracting Behavior : At times students with bipolar disorder may exhibit behaviors such as excessive talking, poor volume regulation, or violation of social interaction or classroom conduct rules.

Fatigue (Cognitive) : Students with bipolar disorder struggle with cognitive fatigue during depressive episodes.

Inability to Comprehend Social Cues : During a manic episode, students' impaired self-reflection is due to the compulsion to act without thought of consequences; when in a depressive episode, students' impaired self-reflection is due to distorted thoughts about themselves and others' perceptions of them. Students with bipolar disorder have difficulty interpreting affective facial cues and during manic episodes students are narrowly focused on their thoughts and tend to miss social cues due to manic thoughts and speaking.

Information Processing Speed : Students with bipolar disorder may experience slower information processing due to certain medications.

Restlessness (Physical) : When individuals with bipolar disorder are having a manic episode, they may feel compelled to move around or fidget.

Time Management : Students with bipolar disorder may be taking medication that slows down processing capacity and they can get lost in a task without a sense of time passing.

The Building Accepting Campus Communities (BACC) project was funded by the US Department of Education Office of Secondary Education grant #P333A080070-09. The University of Nebraska does not discriminate based on gender, age, disability, race, color, religion, marital status, veteran's status, national or ethnic origin, or sexual orientation.