My half-life as a King’s student

After a mental breakdown caused by his bipolar disorder, a King’s student finds himself cast out into the cold.


My journey to King’s was somewhat unconventional. I stood out a little in my first year, not least because at 24, I was about 6 years older than your average Fresher.

However, while other students could speak of interesting gap years abroad and work experience gained as a means of broadening horizons, my explanation was complicated by the fact that at the age of 20 I was diagnosed with bipolar Disorder following in-patient hospitalisation at a psychiatric unit. I have undergone well over a dozen admissions under section in the years that have followed.

Two years later, I have found myself completely absent of the structure which gives meaning and form to university life. After being unable to sit my exams in May because of ill health, I am now facing the prospect of sitting exams in January without being able to attend any lectures or seminars, and without the ability to access essential notes available to all other students.

Statistics tell us that 1 in 4 of us will at some point in our lives come face to face with this ‘hidden’ facet of human experience. Bipolar disorder encompasses two facets of existence, a certain duality of being. There exists the manic component, and its apposite, depression – after all, as is often said, what goes up, must come down.

Between the two lies the struggle for a sense of normality, albeit interspersed with psychiatric consultations, blood tests, medication and the like. Whereas in its initial phases at least, the manic episode can be experienced as a profoundly life-affirming experience verging on the quasi-spiritual, depression is crushing and utterly soul destroying, a force that remorselessly nullifies all sense of self and ruthlessly extirpates any trace of the euphoria that went before it.

Due to the fact that my condition is only something that is outwardly manifest at the two extremes of its ranges, medication notwithstanding I am more or less able to function normally at university. It is not something which is material to the course of everyday proceedings at the university.

There have, however, been two instances where my condition has come to the fore.

In my first year, I was hospitalised for a mercifully short two week stay after having suffered a manic episode towards the end of the second term, meaning that I missed essay deadlines and was placed at a disadvantage for the upcoming end of year examinations. In this case, my department was without fault in their handling of the matter, and granted me the necessary essay extensions and allowed me to sit my examinations without penalty during the August re-sit period.

However, in my second year things went rather differently. In May of this year, I suffered a pretty virulent manic episode that necessitated my longest in-patient psychiatric admission in over four years. There is no such thing as a “good” hospital admission, but this was pretty much one of the worst. Owing to the timing of my detention, my department strongly recommended that I re-sit my summer term exams the following year, effectively a year out.

Initially enthusiastic about being given such an option, I decided to take it up with little thought to its very real ramifications. The upshot of all this is that I exist in something of a hinterland. Although I am still in possession of my student card, I have been informed that I will be unable to attend lectures and seminars for the relevant modules on account of my disenrollment from the university; this means that I am in effect having to prepare for my exams using a glorified form of distance learning.

If that were my preferred mode of instruction, I would have signed up for the Open University. In a practical sense there is very little that anyone, let alone the College, can do in order to prevent the genesis of a manic state – to the extent that it’s possible that the responsibility for it lies squarely with the individual concerned. However, it is the aftermath of a two month in-patient admission that I feel the College could have handled better.

Mental illness encompasses a strata of experience that is at odds with, and separate from, normal existence in society day to day. The psychiatrist Tomasz Szasz once coined the phrase the ‘myth of mental illness’, owing to the lack of biological or physical markers to point towards its existence in the body. However, the altered states one experiences when in the throes of mental illness are very real. So too, unfortunately, are the repercussions that stem from it.