As college students return to campus, they’ll be showered in the usual handouts of coupons, condoms and credit cards. But some schools are also giving students what a growing body of research reveals could make a huge difference in their college careers: ear plugs, sleep shades and napping lessons.
College health officials are finally realizing that healthy sleep habits are a potential miracle drug for much of what ails the famously frazzled modern American college student: anxiety, depression, physical health problems and – more than most students realize – academic troubles. Some studies have found students getting adequate sleep average a full letter grade higher than those who don’t.
But adolescent biorhythms make it hard enough for college students to get the sleep they need, a recommended nine hours.
On top of that, campus life turns out to resemble a giant laboratory experiment designed for maximum sleep deprivation: irregular schedules, newfound freedom, endless social interaction, loud and crowded housing, late-night exercise and food washed down by booze, coffee and energy drinks.
Campuses pulsing with energy at midnight by mid-afternoon resemble Zombie U., with students dozing off in library chairs, on yoga mats and even in coffee shops.
Technology isn’t helping, with wireless Internet adding to the 24/7 distractions and students sleeping with their smart phones on. That likely helps explain data showing college students got about eight hours of sleep in the 1960s and ’70s, seven by the ’80s, and, according to more recent surveys, closer to six these days.
Now, some counselors and health officials are trying to get the message out in creative ways. At tiny Hastings College in Nebraska, student peer educators plop down a bed in the middle of the student union, dress themselves in pajamas, and talk to passers-by about sleep.
Macalester College in Minnesota publishes a nap map listing the pros and cons of various campus snooze sites. And many schools are offering seminars on napping (basic lesson: short naps work better).
The University of Louisville is even planning a campuswide flash nap – think of a flash mob but with sleeping, not dancing – later in the school year (We have to arrange in it advance so our public safety folks know it’s not an epidemic of something, director of health promotion Karen Newton said.)
The average student is functioning with a clinical sleep disorder, said LeeAnn Hamilton, assistant director of health promotion and preventive services at the University of Arizona, describing research conducted on students there. They average about 6.5 hours a night (though students tend to overreport in such surveys).
But sleep time declined over the course of the academic year, while anxiety, depression and conflict with family, friends and roommates all rose. Hamilton’s office has been sending students a Snoozeletter with sleep tips.
College mental health professionals are increasingly asking students about sleep right away, finding it’s often the low-lying fruit for helping students with a range of issues.
When you find depression, even when you find anxiety, when you scratch the surface, 80 to 90 percent of the time you find a sleep problem as well, University of Delaware psychologist Brad Wolgast said. Many students who think they have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are often just sleep-deprived.
Some simple steps to improve sleep hygiene are usually far preferable to prescribing drugs like Ritalin or Adderall.
(Wolgast is also seeing more students who’ve been prescribed sleeping pills, which he says usually harm sleep patterns more than help).
On a campus, they’re dealing with alcohol, cocaine, marijuana, Ritalin abuse, sexual assault, Wolgast said. In comparison, sleep looks like a small problem. But the truth is, if I could wave a magic wand and change everybody’s sleep, there would be fewer problems with pretty much everything else.
On many college campuses, the biggest obstacle is a deep-rooted culture of sleep deprivation macho; for both the cool kids and the smart kids, it seems, the thing to brag about is how little sleep you’re getting, not how much.
Rebecca Robbins, a Cornell graduate student, has researched how students talk about sleep, and found more than 80 percent of the time, it was in negative terms.
Kids in the coffee line will brag, I got two hours of sleep last night,’ almost like it’s a competition, she said.
If that’s all you hear as an adolescent, you begin to think these types of behavior are normal.