Up All Night – Impact Investigates Student Insomnia

Can’t get no sleep?

Time moves slowly when you’re wide awake. Despite having a 9am seminar, you’ve been lying in bed for three hours. Like Nottingham student Unigwe Nneka, you feel like a “nocturnal creature….watching the world go by.” You are not alone.

Insomnia, or the struggle to fall and stay asleep, is a significant problem among University students.  The inevitable feeling that the whole world is sleeping and you’re the only one staring at the ceiling can make your University experience a real test of endurance, both academically and socially.

In an Impact survey of over 400 students, two thirds admit they struggle with sleep and 84% say that it affects their academic work. Second year student Jon Rowson says that severe sleep deprivation leaves him in a state of “half existence…every day feels mundane. Everything is mundane.” Among the demands of his course and maintaining a healthy and balanced student life, a lack of sleep leaves Jon in a constant state of depression, fluctuating between “feeling really sleepy and feeling just okay.”

It’s a state of half existence. Every day feels mundane. Everything is mundane.

Unsurprisingly, many students link their insomnia to academic pressure. Eight out of ten students admit that anxieties surrounding deadlines affect their ability to get a good night’s sleep. Ramsay Bolton, a second year mechanical engineering student, describes his sleeping patterns as a type of limbo: “It’s a state where you’re asleep but you’re not asleep. You just walk around like a zombie and it’s hell.”

Although the average student gets far from the recommended 8 hours a night, the frustration of insomnia is a pressing issue for students, and is yet to be addressed on a large scale.

The matter becomes more complicated, however, when psychological issues such as anxiety and depression are closely related to cases of insomnia. Jon explains: “My anxiety issues have a lot to do with insomnia, but my insomnia has a lot to do with anxiety issues.” Ramsay weighs in: “I think that for people who suffer from insomnia in most cases, it’s a symptom, not a disease.”

Dealing with the problem, however, is no easy task. Impact’s student testimonies suggest that many have sought advice from their GP or the Cripps Health Centre, only to be given ineffective solutions.

Ramsay believes that there is a critical lack of attention when it comes to dealing with the mental health side effects of sleep deprivation: “I really feel that if the University, or the country as a whole, had a better framework for psychiatric or psychological support, it would really help with insomnia”. In fact, Ramsay feels he had access to better support in his home country of Israel, and argues that the UK is failing to meet the needs of insomniacs.

Ramsay feels he had access to better support in his home country of Israel

Similarly, Bryony Lingard, a first year German and Russian student, explains how she was given “a little pamphlet about ways to help yourself get to sleep; I tried them but I felt a bit silly. They didn’t help much.” First year medical student Louisa Hepworth brought her insomnia up with a local GP, “but they sort of brushed it off as a standard ‘students can’t sleep’ issue.”

Taking matters into your own hands with over-the-counter medication is also notoriously ineffective. Third year English student Suzi Collins says: “when I was in first year I bought sleeping tablets from Boots and they didn’t even work.” Ramsay could only deal with the problem with a potent combination of prescribed medication. “Herbal stuff doesn’t do anything for me,” he says “I need the actual proper prescription stuff and they’re hard to get hold of if you’re not professionally diagnosed.”

However, the relief from sleeplessness came with consequences. “It has insane side effects if you take it while you’re not intending to sleep…I accidentally took it instead of a different medication and then went driving. That nearly ended with a massive crash on the motorway. That was scary!” Unsurprisingly, less than a third of Nottingham students have attempted medication, suggesting a distrust of chemical methods.

Impact approached the University with regards to the services offered in support of insomniacs. Nightline, Nottingham’s confidential listening and emotional support service, said: “We would be there to support someone no matter the cause of their insomnia, providing a friendly voice to listen to students’ problems.”

The University’s Counselling Service, however, provides a more structured type of therapy. But many students seem unaware of its existence or are outwardly critical of it. Louisa says: “I know they have the counselling service for mental health issues, but they don’t say ‘if you’re having sleeping problems maybe you can try this or speak to this person’.” Despite repeated attempts to contact the Counselling Service itself, they have made no comment.

Insomnia is definitely a critical issue and has serious physical and mental implications for students at Nottingham. And while resources and services are available, students feel that not enough attention is being given to the subject. For too long, insomnia has been seen as a ‘normal’ part of student life. This needs to stop.

Will Hazell & Emily Shackleton

Photo Credit: Lee Nachtigal via Compfight cc

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