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Monday, August 13, 2012 - 12:00pm

By Jessica Lynn Gimeno

It’s back to school season again. For many students with depression or bipolar disorder, this brings fear and anxiety. Many students experience emergencies like: Waking up depressed the day before an exam. Or being so depressed you actually miss the test. Or not being able to finish a paper on time. Do these experiences sound familiar? (Note: Parents, I write to the student but you can share this article with your teen. Too often mental health advocates focus on what parents should do. But you won’t always be there when emergencies arise. Furthermore, high school teachers and college professors, especially, expect students to articulate their illness.)

A LITTLE BACKGROUND ON ME

There were times when I thought: If I can barely get out of bed, how can I finish school? And yet I did because I developed strategies for combating depression. Despite having bipolar disorder, I graduated cum laude from Northwestern University with two majors in 2006. I also won twenty titles for Northwestern’s Speech Team. More importantly, I co-founded a depression support network. I spoke to hundreds of students about breaking stigma. I also found 30 students psychiatric help.

I know the depressed student-teacher dynamic from both sides. I taught high school speech and debate for three years. I also worked as an education consultant, which means I helped high school students get into college.

SURVIVAL TACTICS FOR STUDENTS WITH DEPRESSION OR BIPOLAR

1. Be Proactive. The biggest obstacle we face is not stigma—but time—time sucked up by depression. Fortunately, we can “create time.” Study when you’re feeling stable and, if possible, during mania (or hypomania) to compensate for times when you’re depressed. A reactive student asks for an extension two days before a paper’s due even though he’s been depressed for two weeks. By contrast, a proactive student asks at least one week in advance.*

2. Think Osmosis! Most students are on “autopilot” 80% of the semester. They sit in class taking notes without thinking about what they’re writing. Then they cram during exams making up 30 acronyms in three days! Don’t do this. While in class, underline notes and make up acronyms. Review notes at least once a week. If you get depressed before an exam, it’s okay because you’ve studied all the material at some point.

3. Accept responsibility. If you make a mistake, like missing a final, don’t deflect blame. When you ask for a second chance, explain your illness (“I have diagnosed depression. I was so depressed that I was in bed all week…”) and apologize (“I’m sorry…”). Many students make one of two fatal errors—talking about the illness without saying “I’m sorry” or apologizing without ever explaining they have an illness because of self-stigma. When students don’t admit they are ill, teachers write them off as irresponsible.

*JESSICA’S 4 RULES ON ASKING FOR EXTENSIONS

1. Ask for extensions at least one week in advance.

2. Explain your illness. Example: I need an extension. I have bipolar disorder and I have been feeling very depressed the past week…

3. Ask in person. Don’t ask via email—there’s too much room for misunderstanding.

4. Provide psychiatrist’s notes that document your illness and its effects on school.

These strategies are only a few tactics. In fact, there are countless ways to create time as I’ve outlined in my written but yet unpublished book, Climbing Out of the Downward Spiral: How to Survive Depression and Finish School.