People with bipolar disorder 1 have lower IQs but achieve higher levels of education than people without bipolar disorder.
A German study found that high education levels are a distinctive feature of bipolar disorder. Significantly more people with the disease completed university studies than did people in the control group.
This is a special achievement considering that the group with BP measured significantly lower on tests of IQ.
The study looked at individuals diagnosed with, and treated for, bipolar disorder 1. It also included a survey of their siblings and parents.
It found that siblings and parents of people with BP1 had IQ levels and educational achievement in line with the control group. People with BP don’t necessarily come from more intelligent families with higher levels of academic achievement.
But they do achieve more academically than their healthy siblings and parents.
It’s also interesting that the average age of onset of BP1, early adulthood, coincides with the years an individual enters and completes higher education. People with BP1 are able to overcome the challenges of the disease and finish their university or professional education.
What cannot be determined by the study are the individuals’ IQ levels before they developed BP1. It is possible that the onset of the disease may have negatively impacted their IQ, especially since their first-degree relatives have normal IQs.
Also unstated is whether symptoms of BP1 caused educational achievement to be interrupted or delayed. The group surveyed was over 36 years old. But the key takeaway is that people with BP1 did finish higher levels of education more often than the general population.
My own experience was rocky. Bipolar disorder hit me hard as I began college, and I dropped out. But I worked for a few years and went back and finished college in my mid-twenties. Other studies show that depression and irritability can negatively impact educational achievement. But mania does not have the same statistically significant effect. I certainly experienced many more episodes of mania than depression.
Perhaps episodes of mania and, more likely, hypomania, so characteristic of bipolar disorder 1, fuel this achievement. Even survey subjects with psychotic mania outperformed academically.
Perhaps we’re just built to work harder.
To quote the study: “From an evolutionary perspective our results raise the question whether high (educational) achievement could be a result of an adaptive advantage of the disorder, associated with benefits in leadership.”
Whatever the causal factor, it is inspiring and insightful that so many people with BP1 can face and meet the challenge of higher education.
I’m confident that, despite any setbacks the disease may throw at people who have it, those of us with BP1 can carry this ability, even this propensity, to achieve into all aspects of our lives.