UBC THRIVE 2016: A Guide for Students with Bipolar Disorder

on November 2, 2016
UBC THRIVE 2016: A Guide for Students with Bipolar Disorder

If you feel in crisis right now, please call 1-800-SUICIDE or Mental Health Emergency Services (604-875-8289).

I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the beginning of my second year of my undergraduate degree at the University of British Columbia (UBC). It had been just over a year of living in Vancouver and I was still struggling to manage my academics, work, finding friends, and all the other nuances of life. Receiving my diagnosis was like merging two warring worlds with no peace treaty in sight — seismic waves with no idea of when the calm will come. But it’s been a few years since then, and during that time I went from not thinking I would graduate (or even live, at many points) to becoming a graduate student. So this is a guide for students, prospective students, or anyone who has a student in their lives (and aren’t we all learners here?). Specifically, though, this guide is for students who have bipolar disorder and attend the UBC Vancouver campus. As we celebrate our annual THRIVE week on campus, I hope my experiences will help aid in the experiences of others.

First: You’re Not Alone
Navigating higher education with a mental illness is not easy, but it doesn’t have to be hard either — which might read like a paradox. This is not meant to be an all-inclusive guide for everything that you need to know during your time at UBC. Unfortunately, such a thing will never exist, but for a good reason. These are blueprints to make your UBC experience the best it possibly can be for you — and you define what “best” means. The idea is that we can all thrive at UBC; those who have bipolar disorder may need to take alternate routes or use different resources, but thrive we can.

Accessing Professional Help
Confirmed bipolar diagnosis or not, there are various places to go for professional support on campus. Personally, I think this is best starting point for navigating academic life at UBC as someone with bipolar.

  • Student Health Services (SHS): This is the main “hub” of healthcare on campus located in the hospital. The most common professionals seen at this location are general practitioners (GP), nurses, and psychiatrists. Seeing a psychiatrist at UBC requires a doctor referral, which you can get from your current GP or by seeing a GP at SHS (make an appointment either online, by phone, or in person). Generally GP sessions are 15 minutes but an extra 15 minutes can be given when someone needs mental health counselling (you can check the option off if you book online). When getting a referral to a psychiatrist, note that there can be a significant wait time (right now it’s approx. 6 months). But you might luck out and get a cancelled appointment and see one much sooner; for example, I managed to seek help a couple hours before someone cancelled their appointment (yeah, super lucky, I know).
    • Biased side note: Not all doctors are made equal, but most of the GPs, nurses, and psychiatrists I’ve seen have done at least a thorough job at making sure all potential avenues of wellness have been addressed. Some doctors are better than others at addressing mental health concerns, but when in doubt just make an appointment with a different GP (yup, you don’t have to keep seeing the same one if you don’t want to).
  • UBC Counselling: The scope of UBC Counselling services is not terribly wide, but they can often be accessed much more quickly than psychiatry and obviously deal with the more psychological aspect of wellness (of course UBC psychiatry does do this too in addition to medication management, with some psychiatrists even offering psychotherapy). Counselling provides short-term therapy to help aid in creating a wellness plan and dealing with stress. You can see a psychiatrist and a counsellor at the same time if your situation warrants it.
    • Biased side note: A lot of people have had negative experiences with counselling for a variety of reasons. Usually I would offer caution and be done with it, but the extent of the concern leaves me with an ethical dilemma when listing this as a resource. Of course many people have had very beneficial encounters with counselling, but many have not. For example, I was told that my problems were “too complex” and they couldn’t help me; instead, I was referred to a counsellor in Vancouver that I couldn’t afford outside the allotted student insurance money. If I was just entering the mental health system at UBC, I would want to know this kind of  information. This is a complex situation, so there should be no “counselling is evil” here because that’s just not true. But tread with caution — you may a confusing first visit.
    • Alternative: If you are experiencing depression and suicidal ideation, the free counselling service SAFER might be able to help you.

Peer Resources
An equally important (if not more so) part of my wellness on campus came from other people going through the same issues I was/am. Here are some resources that can be accessed as peer-to-peer:

  • The Kaleidoscope: This is UBC’s main peer mental health support group. They meet twice weekly (with food!) and talk about everything from midterm stress to disassociation to suicidal feelings. Check out the community agreement on the website, but know that everyone is welcome.
    • Biased side note: I’m currently a facilitator with Kaleidoscope, but I started out years ago as an attendee and found the group to be such a wonderful place for social support. All facilitators can help any person needing help get support, as we’re all very familiar with being in the mental health system.
  • SHARE: This is another peer support group that’s just like Kaleidoscope, except it’s specific to issues of self-harm. They meet twice per month and also provide a complimentary lunch.
    • Biased side note: Also a facilitator for this group. I should mention that both groups require facilitators have lived experience of mental health symptoms so you know you’re talking to someone who can relate to you.
  • The Wellness Centre: Here is where you can find information about all sorts of different aspects of health, from sexuality to sanity to exercise and eating. They serve as a starting point to accessing other resources on campus that might be more specific (e.g. the Sexual Assault Support Centre). The Wellness Centre is a good place to go for getting niche referrals to other clubs/services on campus.
  • Other mental health campus resources to check out: Mental Health Awareness Club and the Mental Health Network.

Academic Support
Finding academic support is going to depend on what faculty, department, status, etc. you have as a student. An undergrad will get support from faculty advisor departments (and perhaps generous profs), but grad students have specific supervisors and are situated in a different context. But both will find this useful:

  • Access and Diversity: Bipolar disorder is considered a disability in Canada, and it can certainly feel that way sometimes. But once you register with Access and Diversity you will get an accommodation letter to show your professors so they know what you need in your studies. This letter doesn’t say why you’re registered with Access and Diversity — it just tells them what accommodations you need in order to be on the same playing field as other students in class. You will be assigned an advisor who will help register you and get you the proper documentation (and provide you ongoing support if you need it). They can also answer questions regarding financial aid for people who have disabilities. Note: No one is allowed to ask you further questions about your disability status. As your advisor will tell you, any questions professors might have can be redirected to Access and Diversity. Disclosure is your choice.
  • So what academic accommodations are available to you? This is an interesting question because the academic accommodation you need may not be available to you through Access and Diversity. For example, on my form it says to allow me more time on exams. There are two problems with this: 1) I have no exams in grad school, and 2) when I did have exams as an undergrad, I always finished my exams quickly. It’s helpful for many, but it’s useless for me. Instead, I asked if I could have more time to do assignments. When I asked for that a few years ago, I was told that it’s up to professors if they want to give me more time to complete my assignments.
  • That being said, professors more often than not will help you out with what you need to succeed in class. Sometimes it can be helpful to disclose your diagnosis in this scenario. It’s a hard thing to do and may be extremely uncomfortable, but ultimately it will help you get what you need to be academically successful. Take a moment to watch this neat video:


Disclosure for Academic Accommodations
I know I was terrified to first disclose my diagnosis to a professor, but ultimately I had to because I was being threatened (a story for another time). So I say “disclose” coming from a place of knowing what it’s like when disclosure goes wrong (aka stigma). I wish I knew back then that disclosing my diagnosis and asking for help is nothing I can be punished for. You have every right to ask for whatever accommodation you need to succeed academically; even if disclosure goes wrong the first time (like it did for me), don’t stop fighting for yourself. It’s in these instances when healthcare professionals will take your side and you can gather a team of support if needed. There are many of us out there waiting to support you. So if you get knocked down by one experience, just know that many people are going to be way more understanding and compassionate than you may think — hold onto that.

Fostering Wellness
Wellness isn’t just the absence of illness. There are a myriad of ways to ensure academic success, but I think the most important one is taking care of yourself. After all, there is a body a literature that suggests healthier students are more successful students. For that I leave the contents of the Bipolar Wellness Centre for your perusal. Whether it’s sleep, diet, relationships — this, in reality, is the most significant portion of this posts’s content. But it’s so individualized that I would just ramble on forever and we’d probably end up getting really existential and I might have an identity crisis (not that that’s a bad thing).

I remember feeling like I was bipolar disorder for a long time, and that affected a lot of my academic work. I felt worthless, incapable, confused, lost… a whole bunch of self-stigma to say the least. For some reason I only included academic life and biological treatment as the most weighted factors in determining my success. In reality, factors like a peaceful home environment, positive relationships, social skills, eating healthy, being mindful… there are so many facets of life that we often ignore. It’s when I realized the importance of all these other areas of life that I began to live more meaningfully and reap the benefits of education.

What if I have an episode?
Depression, hypomania, and mania can all be disruptive to your studies. Here is my advice:

  • If you have an episode, connect with your healthcare professional as soon as possible. They can help you medically and keep you going on the path to recovery.
  • Let your professors know that you’re experiencing symptoms of your condition. Your healthcare professional and/or Access and Diversity can help you navigate this situation in the event that you have to take a pause from your studies. Additionally, your academic supervisor can guide you through the necessary steps to maintain academic standing.
  • Make self-care the priority. Absolutely nothing comes before your health.
  • Self-management can help you get back on your feet. What this means is the tools you use to get yourself back to optimal health. There are many examples of this (here’s one article about it).
  • Get a feel for what areas of life you need to give extra attention to. An easy way to figure this out is by using the Quality of Life tool, which can quickly give you a sense of what aspect of your life needs more care.
  • Don’t be afraid/feel guilty about asking for help. Yeah, it can be hard (I’ve struggled a lot with this), but dealing with bipolar disorder is so much easier when other people are helping you. And help can come in many forms, whether it’s a close friend or a peer support worker or even the internet.
  • Make “I’m not alone” a mantra. Because at some point we’ve all felt like we’re alone when the truth is we’re all in this together.


Feeling in crisis?
Here are some tangible steps to take.

    • Visit SHS or UBC Counselling and request an emergency appointment.
    • Go to Speakeasy for a confidential support session and referral if you don’t know where to go.
    • Call Mental Health Emergency Services at 604-875-8289.
    • Dial 1-800-SUICIDE for the Crisis Centre.
    • Go to UBC urgent care or to Vancouver General Hospital’s Access and Assessment Centre (24/7).
    • Call Mental Health Emergency Services at 604-875-8289.
    • Dial 1-800-SUICIDE for the Crisis Centre.
    • Go to a hospital.
      • Go to urgent care at the UBC hospital (8am-10pm).
        • There is no psychiatrist on site to make a psych assessment. In this case, you might be directed to Vancouver General Hospital. You can either take the bus there or they can give you a form that will give you a free taxi ride.
      • Go to Vancouver General Hospital’s Access and Assessment Centre for support.
      • Go to a hospital emergency room at Vancouver General Hospital or St. Paul’s Hospital.


Got anything to add? Send us an email at crestbdblog@gmail.com and I’ll add it to this post. Check out Redefining Bipolar if you want to read more of my work. Good courage to you all!

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