Wits offers support for students with bipolar disorder who are keen on completing their studies. 

INFOGRAPHIC: Naledi Mashishi.

At least 1% of South Africans have been diagnosed with bipolar mood disorder characterised by bouts of mania and depression. This is according to the The South African Society of Psychiatrists (SASOP), who add that  in many instances, those diagnosed tend to behave erratically especially under high stress scenarios.

Clinical psychologist and lecturer at Wits University, Renate Gericke says, “[Those with bipolar] generally go through a couple weeks where their mood is very low and then enter a high [mania] for weeks. Mania is associated with poor risk control, such as reckless spending, drug or alcohol abuse, and feelings of invincibility and is generally followed by a downward spiral and a state of despair.” The switch between the two impairs an individual’s ability to function normally.

“University is a highly pressurised environment and can be quite triggering,” Gericke says.

Those with bipolar disorder are able to manage their disorder with medication and can complete university studies. Gericke states that if someone with bipolar disorder wants to complete university studies, they must speak to their psychiatrist. “If you have a diagnosis you must go to a psychiatrist, make sure that you are on medication and stay compliant. Keeping a routine is important and so is getting enough sleep and eating healthily,” Gericke says.

Tish Lumos, senior administration assistant at the Wits University Disability Rights Unit (DRU)  says that preconceptions of the disorder are dangerous and actively prevent people from getting help.
“We have an image of mental illness that is static and there is very little we equip people with to deal with it,” they told Wits Vuvuzela. “There are very little resources for those with bipolar disorder.”

Lumos, who manages bipolar herself, says that the DRU offers a number of services to students with bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses that help them pass their studies. Students can register with the DRU which then  assists on an individual basis with negotiations with lecturers, organisation of extra tutorials, and helping students obtain long term condoned absences.

“We try our best to mediate spaces for those with mental health, and foster spaces where students feel safe and welcome,” they said. The DRU also encourages students to come forward and register with them. “By not disclosing, someone may miss out on getting help.”

**Louisa, a Wits master’s student who has been diagnosed with bipolar, says that finding individual coping mechanisms is important for completing one’s studies.

“I’d recommend guided meditation, journalling, art … basically anything that will make you focus on the present. You need to keep yourself in check. In my experience, this along with the right doctor and meds (medication) are key.”

People with bipolar disorder or suspect they may have the disorder, are advised to contact the South African Depression and Anxiety Group for support at 011 234 4837. For emergencies, contact the 24/7 Akeso Psychiatric Response Unit at 0861 435 787 or the Suicide Crisis Line at 0800 567 567.

*Not her real name.