The College Sleep Epidemic
A staggering number of college students throughout the country are chronically sleep deprived, at the expense of their academic performance and health. An astounding 89% of college students report having poor sleep quality. Lack of sleep has drastic consequences on a person, particularly that of young people, whose brains are still developing. Short-term risks of poor sleep include accidents, headaches, mood disorders, absence from work, and low performance, while long-term risks include cardiovascular disease, stroke, dementia, diabetes, obesity, and cancer. Awareness of sleep education needs to be addressed by universities across the country to ensure their students’ academic success and overall well-being.
The most impactful and proactive tool that can be used to prevent exacerbating the sleep deprivation epidemic that college students face is by advocating sleep awareness at universities. According to a New York Times article published in August 2018, studies have shown that sleep quantity and sleep quality equal or outrank popular university concerns such as alcohol and drug abuse in predicting student grades and a student’s chances of graduating. In one survey 60 percent of students said they would like information provided by their colleges on how to manage their sleep issues, however few universities have done anything to combat the detrimental effects of sleep deprivation, influencing not only the academic success of their students, but more importantly their physical and emotional well-being. In fact, many universities instead provide 24-hour access to the library, which encourages students to pull all-nighters.
Dr. Roxanne Prichard, director at the Center for College Sleep at the University of Saint Thomas in Saint Paul, Minnesota claims, “An all-nighter may help if all you have to do is memorize a list, but if you have to do something complex with the information, you’ll do worse by staying up all night. After being awake 16 hours in a row, brain function starts to decline, and after 20 hours awake, you perform as if legally drunk.” Dr. Prichard affirms that the sleep habits of college students represent “a major public health crisis,” yet out of 26 risks to health that colleges deem important to inform students about, sleep ranks second to last, only above internet addiction. Institutions of advanced education unfortunately heed little attention to such a grave problem.
Waking Up to the Problem
Harvard has taken a lead by providing sleep education for the first time ever by encouraging that all incoming freshmen for the Class of 2022 take an online sleep course called Sleep 101 before arriving on campus. The course includes useful information on how to maximize sleep and impediments that can disturb sleep. The sleep course was developed in a joint effort between Harvard sophomore Raymond So and Dr. Czeisler, a professor of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School. Raymond So was inspired to bring his fellow students more sleep education after taking Dr. Czeisler’s seminar “Time for Sleep: Impact of Sleep Deficiency and Circadian Disruption in our 24/7 Culture,” supposedly one of the most popular classes on campus. Dr. Czeisler says that his greatest aspiration is “that Sleep 101 is just a first step toward changing the future.” With Sleep 101 now underway the next step will be to train Harvard faculty in sleep awareness, and look to have the course become required for all students in the future. Other colleges should look to follow Harvard’s example and introduce sleep courses at their campuses.
Universities can further bring awareness by holding presentations regarding sleep issues for all students to attend, much like lectures for alcohol abuse and sexual assault subject matters. Colleges can also provide pamphlets in their health centers for information on sleep tips and devices that help monitor sleep. Many college students may not have a surplus of disposable income to invest in devices to fully investigate their sleep to the degree that is necessary, that’s why it’s imperative that universities take the initiative to provide a means for their students to monitor their sleep character. It’s time to illuminate the sleep deprivation epidemic so that college students no longer have to continue their plight and are able to realize their full academic and human potential.
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