Two-thirds of college students are struggling with lack of sleep, poor sleep quality

The students are not all right, new research reports. According to the findings, around two-thirds of college students experience poor sleep quality, which affects their academic performance and can lead to the development of mental health issues.

Image credits Mohamed Hassan.

College has definitely been an enjoyable part of my life, but sleeping well was not really part of the deal. I think most of us can empathize with that statement. And college students enrolled today would likely say the same.

A new study working with a sample of 1,113 college-age students enrolled in university full-time reports that two-thirds are experiencing poor sleep quality. The data further shows that students reporting depressive symptoms are almost four times as likely to suffer from poor sleeping habits. Although female students were more likely to have trouble getting enough rest overall, poor sleep can lead to a number of health complications across the board and impair students’ ability to perform academically.

Sleeping in class

“Sleep disorders are especially harmful for college students because they’re associated with several negative effects on academic life,” says lead author Dr. Paulo Rodrigues from the Faculty of Nutrition, Federal University of Mato Grosso, Brazil. “These include failures in attention and perception, high absenteeism rate, and sometimes dropping out of the course”.

The study surveyed 1,113 undergraduates and postgraduates (aged 16 to 25) who were enrolled at the Federal University of Mato Grosso in Brazil. Participants were asked about their sleep quality, EDS, socioeconomic status, and their body mass index (BMI) was also assessed.

The authors say their findings raise an alarm about the fact that stressors associated with college life, such as heavy course demands, put students at an increased risk of developing sleeping disorders. In turn, such disorders pose a genuine threat to their academic performance and overall health. Universities, the authors conclude, should take steps to promote healthy sleep habits among their students, and take extra steps to safeguard their mental health.

Over half (55%) of the students enrolled in the study reported having issues with excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS). This was more prevalent among female students overall. These 55% of students as a group were almost twice as likely to report feeling moderate to high levels of stress, and of exhibiting signs of depression.

The authors warn stressors, such as course demands, make college students vulnerable to sleep disorders which in turn affect academic performance and health. They’re calling on universities to do more to promote positive sleep habits and good mental health.

“The university environment offers greater exposure to factors that may compromise sleep habits such as academic stress and the demands of social life. It’s crucial to evaluate and monitor sleep habits, mental health, and the quality of life of students to reduce the risk of developing other chronic diseases,” Dr. Rodrigues adds. “University managers should plan the implementation of institutional actions and policies. This is to stimulate the development of activities that promote good sleep habits and benefit students’ mental health.”

Among the factors that make students likely to lose sleep include living away from home, on their own terms, for the first time in their lives; the use of stimulants such as coffee to impair sleep, and an erratic bedtime schedule. The same factors also increase the likelihood of students experiencing poor quality sleep even on days where they do get enough time to rest. On average, the participants of this study slept an estimated seven hours per day, compared to what is considered the ideal amount for adults, of nine hours per day.

The authors note that the issues of EDS prevalence and poor sleep among university students have been investigated and documented previously, but the link between these and stress or depression remained poorly understood. In addition, the study highlights a link between poor sleep quality and the ability of students to perform academically. Students enrolled in biological and health sciences were more likely to be affected, as were those enrolled in social and human sciences.

Despite this, the study cannot point to the exact mechanism that links sleep disturbance with depression, in the sense that it cannot tell if one causes the other or vice-versa. The authors note that further research is needed to understand this dynamic.

The paper “Poor sleep quality, excessive daytime sleepiness and association with mental health in college students” has been published in the Annals of Human Biology.

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