As college students return to campus, they’ll be showered in the usual handouts of coupons, condoms and credit cards. But some schools are 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.
The University of Louisville is planning a campus-wide “flash nap” — think of a flash mob but with sleeping, not dancing — later in the school year.
Still, given the scope of sleeping problems, what’s surprising is that such efforts are exceptional. While about three-quarters of college students have indicated occasional sleep problems, the latest National College Health Assessment found about the same proportion reported receiving no information from their school about sleep.
“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 per night. But sleep time and quality measurements declined over the course of the academic year, while anxiety, depression and conflict with family, friends and roommates all rose.
College mental health professionals are increasingly asking students about sleep right away, finding it’s often the low-lying fruit for helping students with many 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,” said University of Delaware psychologist Brad Wolgast. Many students who think they have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder are often just sleep-deprived.
“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.”