Student insomnia: a growing concern

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Students at Bristol are risking serious long term health issues by not getting their necessary quality and quantity of sleep. Richard Assheton investigates this often-undiscussed but widespread problem.

Humanity has revered the ability to go without sleep for much of its history. Gilgamesh was tasked with staying awake for seven days on his quest for eternal life. Margaret Thatcher spent 11 years in office supposedly on only four hours’ sleep a night. Keith Richards once “had so much to do, man”, that he stayed up for nine days. These first two are now dead. The last’s Life endures against all odds. All three are immortalised not in their bodies but our minds.

Yet legends of nocturnal heroes disguise the seriousness of poor sleeping habits. As Dr Dominique Thompson of the Student Health Service tells me, evidence abounds of the very clear-cut link between sleep and health, demonstrated by new studies released almost daily: “How Sleep, Memory Go Hand in Hand”, “Sleep Problems May Impact Bone Health”, “Teen Insomnia Linked With Depression, Anxiety”.

Thompson points out that shift workers who work at night and sleep during the day die younger than others, illustrating that it is not just the amount of sleep but when it happens in the day that is important. She also describes cases of depression in which students have suffered physical injuries which have disrupted their sleep patterns. And when a student complains about a poor memory her first question concerns their sleep—often they are working all night, not realising the damage.

The University of Nottingham found that 2 out of 3 students struggled with sleep

The University of Bristol is at the cutting edge of sleep research - it has its own two-room sleep laboratory - yet simultaneously seems to be afflicted by a widespread sleep problem. A 2013 University of Nottingham survey saw two thirds of students questioned admitting to struggling with sleep, with 84% of those saying that their academic work was affected. There has been no comparative study here but similar statistics would be unsurprising; Thompson says she sees someone with a sleep problem every day.

Most students seem to be aware of the short but not long-term repercussions of poor sleep, partly due to the great spectrum of its causes and symptoms. Insomnia can arise from any number of psychological (e.g. bereavement), psychiatric (e.g. depression), physiological (e.g. uncomfortable bed) and pharmacological (e.g. alcohol) problems.

Symptoms also vary: Thompson sees many students with delayed sleep phases syndrome, where body clocks are out of kilter with the sun and the body’s hormonal system - what she calls the “basic caveman drive to be asleep when it’s dark and awake when it’s light”. Others have trouble maintaining sleep. A very small minority show underlying health problems such as depression.

The university treats this little-talked-about but destructive problem with great respect. The Student Health Service aims to find the underlying cause of symptoms, educating patients with handouts about good or bad habits, or what is known as “sleep hygiene” and directing them towards websites such as Sleepio (“the online program clinically proven to help you overcome poor sleep”), offering one-off self-hypnosis sessions and directing them to the student-praised Counselling Service, and claiming to only prescribe sleeping tablets as a short term way of resetting body clocks.

Students are often unaware of the severity of poor sleep

The problem is that students are unaware of the severity of sleeping poorly. The university has a dearth of disseminated information about the palette of sleep-related issues and their long term health effects. “Sleep hygiene” is an alien concept and students’ attitude towards insomnia is different to that towards physical conditions: one student told me that he would feel “silly” going to see a doctor about “something as natural as sleep” but that he sought medical help when he had a throat infection earlier in the term.

Peace of Mind, the new mental health society, aims to encourage the university to be more informative in its approach to an issue affecting thousands. The “painfully overwhelmed” Student Health and Counselling services mean students must undertake some responsibility for themselves. To do this they need knowledge.

Thompson believes that student life inevitably brings with it sleeping problems. For the first time in their lives students are saddled with new responsibilities: “the pressures change but the [sleep] requirement is still there”. A 2012 studentbeans.com survey claimed that one in three students suffered insomnia due to financial worries, on top of which often come relationship issues, before even mentioning academic pressures.

Student lifestyle traits, such as alcohol, naps and eating late can hinder sleep

Student lifestyle traits have been proven to hinder sleep: screens, which emit sun-emulating blue light, suppress melatonin production—f.lux is an app that avoids this; students also use beds as offices and sofas; they take naps in the afternoon; they smoke and eat late; they drink, sometimes to get to sleep when in fact alcohol dramatically decreases sleep quality; and routines are often nonexistent. 'So you’re on an absolute helter-skelter down towards all sorts of issues.'

Thompson likens students getting their routines back to giving up smoking. Some, like one I spoke to, “know [they] can beat it. “It’s my own fault that I’ve done it,” he says. “I know how to get out of it.” Others need medical help to avoid falling asleep on laboratory desks. Almost all are unaware of the risks they are running.

If you think you may have insomnia, there are plenty of online resources which can teach you about sleep hygiene, including Sleepio and the National Sleep Foundation. Sleepio has a short questionnaire which can help to identify your problem. Alternatively do visit the Student Health Service; where doctors are more than happy to discuss even the most minor sleep problem.

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