By Chelsea Skye Smith (Alpha Omega, Birmingham-Southern College)
Content warning: Mentions of mental illness, self-harm, suicide, sexual promiscuity and medications
It has always been important for me to help disrupt the judgment surrounding mental illness. I went into college knowing I wanted to study psychology, but it was the little things about mental health stigmatization that struck a chord within me. Hearing things like, “She’s being moody and bipolar” or “I’m so OCD because I like things to be tidy” were always triggers. However, mental health and wellness became even more personal in the fall of 2009.
During my first month of college, I found myself in trouble at school after getting into a fight and was diagnosed as having bipolar disorder. I was actually relieved that I finally had a name to explain why I felt these frantic highs and severe lows, which are characteristic of bipolar disorder. “Bipolar” was a harsh label that took me a few months to feel completely comfortable having, but eventually, I embraced this new addition to my identity. Having bipolar disorder isn’t who I am necessarily, but it does shape my everyday life, including my interactions with others and daily routines.
I am not bipolar, but I do have bipolar disorder. I knew my family would always understand and support me, but I was nervous to tell my sorority sisters in college about my diagnosis at first. However, it actually helped me get closer to some sisters who I maybe wouldn’t have otherwise. My Alpha Chi Omega sisters at the time, and even alumnae sisters now, have been some of my main supporters just by being understanding and willing to help.
I remember a particularly difficult time when I ran into an upperclassman on the campus of Birmingham-Southern who noticed I had been crying. She drove me back to the Alpha Chi house while listening to my story. That moment solidified that I had chosen the right sisterhood. Not long ago something similar happened where I couldn’t make it to a virtual chapter meeting for my alumnae chapter because I felt like I was breaking down mentally. Our president, who stays very busy with her own life and duties, went out of her way to make sure I took care of myself first and championed me to keep being a real, strong woman.
Along with self-harm and suicidal ideations, those of us who have bipolar disorder are more likely to experience frenzied (manic) behaviors that we might not partake in otherwise. Some examples of these behaviors include being sexually promiscuous, racking up loads of debt or needing fewer hours of sleep than we normally would when manic. While I tend to face less manic behavior and more depressive episodes, I am affected by having this mental illness daily. Having a routine that family and friends support is important for many neurodivergent or mentally ill individuals. From staying away from certain classes of medications that might trigger hypomania to making sure I’m home every single night early enough to take my medications, thriving with bipolar disorder requires some form of daily routine to keep me mentally stable and balanced. Without a doubt, living authentically and not hiding my mental health journey has personally helped me to become the happiest version of myself over the past few years.
My diagnosis helps me to more easily see beauty even in the common things of life by making me more thankful that I’m alive to experience the things that others take for granted. Being myself and sharing my truth pushes me to strive harder to keep my life balanced and in tune with the world and to appreciate all that is noble in another, including differing beliefs or behaviors from my own. Being open to my own differences also makes me more open-minded and accepting of the lives of others. I value the distinctions among all people I meet on a deeper level because I know there’s more to all of us than just what can be physically seen. We are not defined solely by our mental health, but it does have a major impact on our lives.
If anyone you know is suffering from mental illness – diagnosed or potentially undiagnosed – the first thing I’d recommend is listening. Sit down, have a coffee and enjoy the weather with them. The best way for you to support individuals with mental health issues, in my opinion, is to be open-minded and nonjudgmental about the fact that their life journey might be different from yours. We all need help sometimes, but that help varies depending on the individual struggles. Sometimes people prefer sitting in silence, sometimes they want to cry and let all of the struggles go for a brief time, and sometimes they just want someone to hear them and to know they’re not alone.
If you or someone you know is having serious suicidal ideations, please reach out. College campuses have mental health professionals on staff, and there is also a suicide lifeline that you can call or chat with 24/7 – call 800-273-8255 or visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org. Having a mood disorder like bipolar is a lifelong diagnosis and not something that can be ignored. Going off your medication because you’re feeling “better” right now might feel like a good idea, but please always consult a medical professional.