For any teen, going back to school, whether it’s high-school, university, or college, brings a combination of new opportunities and challenges: classes/courses, teachers or professors, new peers. At Sunnybrook’s Centre for Youth Bipolar Disorder we are often asked by our teenage patients and their parents what they can do to boost the chances of a smooth and successful academic year.
Many of the potential pitfalls and protective strategies are the same for teens with bipolar disorder as they are for any other teen. But the likelihood of having difficulties, and the stakes associated with those difficulties, are higher on average for teens with bipolar disorder.
Think of the school year as a juggling exercise. Typically, students have at least some difficulty juggling the competing priorities of academics, friends, family, and self-care. But most students can juggle two-handed–they have a lot to keep track of, and yet they’re able to use all of their resources to keep things going. Teenage students with bipolar disorder have to keep all of the usual balls in the air with one hand, while juggling their symptoms and treatments with the other hand. The transition back to school can be challenging. Students may fall behind and some even need to withdraw from a semester. Fortunately, we also see many teens with bipolar disorder who thrive during their return to the classroom.
Tips to help students
There isn’t one easy way, but rather a number of strategies that can boost the chance of school success. There are also potential pitfalls that can get in the way of success. It’s important to be aware of both and have a plan to support your goals throughout the year:
- Routines: Consistency in eating, sleeping, socializing, and other daily routines provides structure, making it easier to stay organized and maximize efficiency. Routines also have mental health benefits—in fact one of the leading therapies for bipolar disorder focuses on optimizing routines.
- Exercise: Being physically active helps students in a variety of ways. Exercise can be a social outlet, a way to reduce stress and improve mental health, a source of fun and distraction. Cardiovascular (i.e. aerobic) exercise in particular helps bolster attention and other aspects of executive functioning.
- Parent/family support: Establishing healthy boundaries with parents is important, as is knowing when to ask for support. Sometimes teens choose to keep their parents almost completely out of the loop. While this incommunicado approach can reduce short-term tensions (e.g. unwelcomed suggestions or guidance) it can also increase later tensions relating to preventable school problems. Both parental over-involvement and under-involvement have drawbacks. We encourage teens to find a happy medium. Having a conversation about this before heading off to school can provide an opportunity to negotiate a middle ground.
- Sleep: The importance of consistent and adequate sleep for teens with bipolar disorder can’t be overstated. Insufficient sleep can lead to a host of problems, such as reduced energy, poor focus, and a tendency to excessively crave sweet/rich foods. So, in addition to feeling tired, not getting enough sleep can impact other protective factors such as healthy nutrition and physical activity.
- Substances: It’s very common for teens to experiment with binge-drinking and with substances such as cannabis. Although this experimentation isn’t necessarily ideal for anyone, the risk-benefit ratio is more concerning for teens with bipolar disorder. Even relatively modest amounts of alcohol and substance use can potentially precipitate symptoms or interfere with treatment. Ultimately, teens will make their own decisions, and fear-mongering isn’t effective. We focus on arming our patients with the facts they need to make an informed decision, and encourage them to take a minimalist approach when it comes to substances.
- Overly ambitious or inflexible goals: Most teens want to take a full course load and excel. But depending on how stable their mood and other symptoms (e.g. anxiety, inattention) have been in the months leading up to school, it can be helpful to set goals (e.g. number of courses, grades) that are more forgiving. The first year of high school, college or university, involves the most change and is often the most challenging. Deciding on a reduced course load and/or lower grade expectations can be tough, but often teens are grateful they did made this decision. Overall, we encourage realistic initial goals that can be modified over time.
Heading back to school can be both exciting and overwhelming. Being aware of strategies and pitfalls, and being flexible with goals, can help teens and parents plan and prepare for the new school year ahead.
Written by Dr. Ben Goldstein, Dr. Rachel Mitchell, Danielle Omrin, MSW, RSW, Jessica Roane, MSW, RSW, Vanessa Timmins, MSW, RSW