My name is Steph, I am 55 and have four grown-up children, three stepchildren and 29 grandchildren. I have Bipolar Type 2 (known as manic depression), a hearing impairment, Myers-Irlen syndrome and various other complex health issues that affect both my mobility and physical dexterity. I have been a wheelchair user for five years and, as my physical health deteriorated, I found myself disorientated in my life.
I decided to keep my mind active by applying for my first OU module in 2015, and have embraced my student journey since, knowing it supports my well-being and self-esteem. I started volunteering for the OU Students Association within a few months of studying, which has also been a life-changing and rewarding aspect of my study experience.
Bipolar doesn’t define me
I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder Type 2 in my early twenties and had a difficult experience coming to terms with the diagnosis. There was a stigma attached to mental health illnesses over 3 decades ago, and as a young mum, I was fearful of complications that would affect my family.
Medication and therapy treatments were not effective at first, and I was prescribed different types of medication (antidepressants and mood stabilisers); but it took years of trial and error before the right combination made a difference to my symptoms. I was offered various therapy treatments over the years, including group bipolar meetings, one-on-one therapy sessions, psychiatric appointments, hospital stays and community visits from an array of psychiatric nurses.
I raised my children and worked to support us financially, focusing on ways to cope or work through symptoms. Finally, by my late thirties, I felt I had found balance in my life, and learned to live with my mental health in a more effective way. When my bipolar exacerbated, I learned to recognise triggers or patterns of behaviour that I needed to manage. I worked hard to replace them with positive behaviour, which gave me the tools to deal with flare-ups. I have transferred those skills and knowledge into my daily life and have found ways to live a normal life.
Bipolar and me
Hypomania – this could cause manic episodes, including elevated moods, intense irritability, and impulsive behaviour. When coupled with racing thoughts (overthinking things), insomnia, and hyperactivity, it causes a major lack of focus and affects the way a person functions.
Depression – this can occur soon after hypomania subsides, or much later. It may be a repeating cycle back and forth between hypomania and depression without breaks, or it can include long periods of normal mood between hypomania episodes. The depressive mood with Bipolar Type 2 is like clinical depression, with low energy, reduced activity, feelings of low well-being and lack of self-worth.
Bipolar moods and behaviours can last weeks or even months, and when left untreated, can lead to psychosis or suicidal feelings.
I have learnt to live with bipolar, by understanding triggers and how they affect me, continually working on ways to deal with symptoms to minimise the episodes. I use the hyperactivity stage to study; the new information feeds my brain and slows my racing thoughts, and I find ways to keep active with my family, friends, and community.
I have a great support system of family and friends. I understand the value of talking to someone when needed. Volunteering has made a significant difference in my coping mechanisms because I know I am doing something worthwhile. I feel proactive, useful and I get the opportunity to make a positive difference for other OU students. This in turn lifts my self-esteem and helps prevent negative thinking. Win-win!
My depression and hypermania stages are less frequent or elevated. I haven’t suffered flare-ups of psychosis or suicidal feelings for fifteen years. However, I am aware that I need to continue to take care of my mental health, and I will always be a ‘work in progress', but Bipolar does not define me.
Living with mental health issues
I keep myself as active as possible, finding ways to feel useful and ensure my time is well managed. Due to complex physical health issues, I have a lot more time on my hands, due to being medically retired.
- My coping mechanism, for both hypomania and depression, is to be proactive within the community and as a family member, keeping myself busy. This makes me feel valued, proactive and useful.
- I have found a flair for therapeutic art/crafts, and a love for learning because it feeds my brain! This helps keep my hypomania and racing thoughts at bay.
- I also have a good support network of healthcare professionals, friends, and family. This helps me manage any depressive mood swings.
Important: If you have low mental health or have any worrying symptoms, talk to someone; it could be a friend, colleague, family, or healthcare professional. You do not need to suffer in silence. The help provided today is accessible and waiting for those who need it.
Studying with Bipolar
When my physical health was deteriorating, I wanted to challenge myself and decided to study at The Open University. This helped keep my mind busy and it hasn’t been a disappointment. I found new ways to approach my studies to support good mental health and well-being and my love of learning has transferred over to my OU student journey.
I discovered the Students Association at Freshers, accessing their support and advice services when I needed them most. I wanted to get more involved and found that the community areas helped bridge the gap of isolation that distance learning can create. This interaction quickly enriched my student experience, and I soon found I wanted to give back to our OU student community. It didn’t take me long to get involved with volunteering.
I now believe that “once an OU student, always an OU student” is not a myth!
The last seven years have been such a worthwhile part of my life, and I have found no barriers to studying and volunteering, regardless of my mental health issues and physical disabilities. However, I am always aware that I need to take each day, one day at a time, because Bipolar will always be part of me. With this realisation, I accept low mental health can and does affect my studies at times….
How does poor mental health affect my studies?
Engagement – there can be times when engagement with studies can be lower and finding motivation to continue is depleted.
Concentration – I can be distracted with things going on in my life. Racing thoughts or low feelings can impact my concentration levels.
Attainment – I do not enjoy studying when I have difficulty keeping up with the study calendar or if I must catch up with module material due to ill health. I know this can impact on my assignment grades and module results.
Progression – overwhelming feelings and thoughts, or poor health, can limit how much energy I can put into my studies. This lowers my confidence in my ability to succeed or study at university level, lowering my self-esteem.
Sociability and relationships – poor mental health can make me feel like withdrawing from interactions with others or making me less sociable. I may lose contact or communicate less with friends and family.
Ways to look after your mental health while studying
Talk to someone
Sometimes the pressure of studying, alongside the isolation of distance learning, can make you feel lonely, anxious, stressed or overwhelmed. Talk to someone, whether it is another student, colleague, friend or family and sharing can help alleviate those negative feelings. You could also access the free online support service called Talk Campus, so you don’t have to struggle alone.
Light exercise for 15-20 minutes a day can help break the monotony of each day and lift low moods. It can help you feel happier, enable you to sleep better, and improve your focus when studying. This could be just getting up and walking around, a short walk into the garden, or something more organised (e.g. gym session, bike ride, short exercise routine).
I adapt exercises that I can do sitting down (due to my complex health issues and being a wheelchair user) but ensure I stretch and move around when I can during study sessions. This has helped me feel refreshed and less tired.
Eat and drink sensibly
Don’t skip meals and make sure you eat healthy snacks when hungry during studying to keep your energy levels topped up (some examples can be found on studysmarter.co.uk). Keep yourself hydrated too by drinking enough fluids, it helps brain function and mood. Avoid regular alcohol consumption, although an occasional glass or two to relax is OK. Alcohol can affect brain performance, memory, and concentration for up to 48 hours.
I eat fruit, noodles or soup as a snack while studying. I also have a bottle of water nearby and take plenty of breaks, so I can have a cuppa too!
Take regular breaks
Rest is really important while you are studying, especially when you are doing this around other responsibilities or during ill health. Take regular breaks during your study sessions.
I use a study technique called Pomodoro, which is a highly effective way to study in smaller chunks, giving yourself shorter breaks in between. It helps you study more effectively and manages your time constructively while allowing your brain to rest regularly, which aids memory and concentration.
Get regular sleep!
Studying while tired can affect mental health negatively by exacerbating symptoms. Try to get the recommended sleep of eight hours (for healthy adults) and longer if needed if you suffer with fatigue. A healthy sleeping pattern will help re-energise your body, recharge your brain and help you switch off from any worries or everyday issues you face.
I suffer with insomnia, and I know my performance is not as effective when I am sleep deprived. I rest and sleep as and when I can, listening to what my body tells me, which helps reduce the feelings of fatigue. This helps my memory and learning, allowing me to focus on what I am doing, and enables me to cope with study alongside my health issues and other commitments.
Set small goals
You can break your study week work into smaller manageable chunks, listing them into a to-do list. Smaller goals are easier to achieve and work well with the Pomodoro method I mentioned above. It allows you to pace yourself through the work, makes studying feel less overwhelming and can boost motivation when you see your to-do list get shorter as you tick each task.
Take some ‘me’ time
OU students are notorious for studying around work, family, health issues and other commitments, all of which can impact mental health and well-being. It is important to find something you can do that is just for you, that makes you feel happy and that gives you that stress-free personal time. You could listen to music, meditate, watch a favourite TV show, do something creative, etc. This will not only give you a break from the stresses of your life and study workload, but it can also be a positive boost to your mental health and well-being.
I have learnt how important that special ‘me’ time is, separate from my study and other responsibilities. I find being creative works for me, and often do some art or craftwork during study break sessions (even if it is just 10 minutes of doodling).
I also spend time with our Students Association Clubs and Societies and enjoy time in my volunteer roles. Socialising with other students makes me feel like I belong to something bigger and builds that sense of community.
The last thing I wanted to mention was keeping organised and having contingency plans. This will be different depending on your learning styles, lifestyle, and personal situation.
Keeping organised – I plan my weekly work and try to allocate study sessions (movable if necessary, depending on mental health lows or episodes). I use to-do lists to keep me motivated and I can see what I am achieving one day at a time. I reward myself when I complete my work and module, taking out time for ‘me’ through creativity or recreational activities.
Contingency plan – I try to work at least a week or two ahead of the module calendar to give me leeway if my mental health or health issues cause me to feel unwell. Which means I am less likely to fall behind with my studies. I also work through break weeks in the module study calendar, which builds extra flexibility into my studies, in case I need to take extra time out later, to look after myself.
You can find out more about support and advice to help maintain good mental health and well-being during your studies from the University.
By Stephanie Stubbins
Disabled Students Group Committee Member