The summer after her freshman year at UC Irvine, Jenny (not her real name), a bright, popular sorority girl, began an episode that rapidly spiraled her into a deep and prolonged depression. Unprovoked by any particular event, this depression left her unable to function in school or work for several months, and changed her life as a college student forever.
‘I just wigged out,’ Jenny explained. ‘For probably three months I literally wasn’t myself. And then I crashed and just went to bed for a long time.’
For Jenny, her largest problem was her inability to interact with people in a functional manner. ‘For a while I would tell myself, ‘Why work, because I don’t need to buy anything, because I don’t want to leave the house anymore,” Jenny said. ‘I was so sad inside that there was nothing I wanted to do in the world.’
Jenny continued, ‘I would look at happy people and wonder what the hell they were laughing about.’
The transition back to UCI after a prolonged break wasn’t an easy one for Jenny.
‘No one in the sorority reached out to me,’ Jenny said. ‘I was really popular first year. … When I got back and they saw something was wrong, they pretty much stopped contacting or including me.’
One year after her initial episode, Jenny was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness. This news wasn’t easy to take.
‘I’ve been diagnosed,’ Jenny said, ‘but I’m in denial.’
Most of the time, all I experience is being depressed, nothing more. If I’m a little edgy I just consider it to be hormones. … For now, I see myself as an individual who has found the right group of medications, and I’m functional.’
Bipolar disorder is not an uncommon illness. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, two million Americans, one percent of the adult population, suffer from the disorder.
Bipolar disorder commonly develops in late adolescence or early adulthood, and is a lifelong illness requiring a level of maintenance similar to diabetes. College students represent the age group most likely to develop symptoms of bipolar disorder.
If 1 percent of the American adult population is affected by the disorder, then on a campus of almost 24,000 students, 240 could potentially suffer from bipolarism.
Another, more common mental illness that shows up in college students is depression. Also considered a serious illness which can be debilitating, depression is often treatable with medication.
Brett Barbaro has been working in UCI research labs for the past two years, studying bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. He plans to enter UCI’s neuroscience program as a graduate student next year.
On Jan. 20, Barbaro plans to host a meeting entitled ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ for those interested in learning more about bipolar disorder. If all goes well, a bipolar disorder support group might be launched at the Counseling Center.
‘What I want to do is help people [who are] going through these conditions. I’ve seen how much suffering they can cause,’ Barbaro said. ‘I want people to know that they’re not alone, that [bipolar disorder is] a medical condition … and that there are things they can do about it.’
The meeting is jointly supported by the Counseling Center and the Disability Services Center.
For some, the meeting might come just in time, as cases of depression are more likely to develop in the winter.
‘A lot of it has to do with the light,’ Barbaro said. ‘Southern California is actually a pretty good location for people who are prone to depression, as opposed to [a place like] Seattle, but it’s still an issue.’
Luckily, there are on-campus resources already available to students. The Student Health Center, the Counseling Center and the Disability Services Center all offer services and compensation for students dealing with mental illness.
In particular, the Counseling Center already offers a variety of support groups, including one focused on depression and another focused on stress management. The idea of adding a group specific to bipolar disorder has been brought up twice, but each time support seemed to wane.
It is Barbaro’s hope that his informational meeting will produce enough interest to finally establish a relationship between those experiencing bipolar disorder.
Though Jenny acknowledged the benefits of a support group, she didn’t seem enthusiastic to participate. ‘I don’t want to dwell on it. The less I think about it, the better I am, or seem to be,’ she said.
‘On the other hand,’ Jenny added, ‘if friends and family are noticing a withdrawal or if you are dropping work or school [because of depression], then that’s the time to get help. A support group might help someone at that point.’
For information on depression or bipolar disorder, you can visit the Counseling Center in the Student Services building on Ring Road, or contact Brett Barbaro at firstname.lastname@example.org or (949) 525-2122.