Bipolar disorder is an illness that affects the most complex part of the body –the brain. This disorder involves both abnormal structure and functioning of the brain. Additionally, researchers have found abnormal levels of chemical neurotransmitters and abnormal cellular activity in the brain. Genetic studies have linked multiple genes to bipolar disorder including two that are responsible for building the calcium and sodium channels in the brain. Bipolar disorder affects a person’s energy levels, thoughts, moods and behaviours.
The person suffering from bipolar disorder experiences extreme shifts in mood ranging from depression to mania. Decreased energy levels, pervasive sadness, lack of motivation, irritability, anger, feelings of worthlessness, disregard for personal safety and suicidal feelings are some of the symptoms that can mark a period of depression.
Increased energy levels, elated mood, poor impulse control, grandiose thinking, racing thoughts, and agitation are some of the symptoms that can mark a period of mania. Children and adolescents who manifest bipolar disorder often experience these extreme mood shifts several times in one day. They can also experience a “mixed” state in which they exhibit symptoms of depression and mania at the same time. During different phases of the illness, the individual may appear sluggish, irritable, angry, oppositional, sullen, tearful, hyperactive, inattentive, distractible, talkative, overbearing or controlling. This represents the illness in its “raw” or untreated state. Because of the chronic nature of this condition, ongoing medication and treatment is required.
Bipolar disorder impacts a persons ability to function in the classroom or lecture and benefit from educational instruction. First, the wide range of symptoms associated with bipolar disorder has a large impact on their education. These symptoms will directly affect the individual’s behaviour in the classroom or lecture. Some difficulties Individuals have whilst studying with bipolar disorder includes:
- Lack of concentration
- loss of focus
- uninhibited actions
- difficulties at remaining seated
- performing below potential
- loud talking
- unable to wait for long periods of time
- lack of motivation
- difficulty in completing set tasks
- sleepy or slowed down
- crying spells
- problems with peers
- angry outbursts
- difficulties with change
- difficulties with stress
- frequent absenteeism
- frequent headaches and muscle pains
In light of the symptoms of this illness it is important to consider what classroom situation will best fit the needs of the student. Most students with bipolar disorder will require special modifications to be successful in the regular classroom. Bipolar disorder is a significant health impairment that typically qualifies the individual for these special considerations and or modifications.
Empathy, compassion and a willingness to learn about the individuals’ condition are critical elements in creating a positive learning environment. A positive attitude is also essential. The student with bipolar disorder frequently experiences the disapproval of both peers and authority figures due to the inappropriate behaviours that are at times manifested as a result of this illness. Yet the student’s disapproval of themselves may be the greatest of all. It is important to try to minimize negative situations. Even seemingly small considerations can help in big ways.
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