Welcome to our new section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus.) We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.
Growing up, I always heard that I need at least eight hours of sleep — but that was the extent of it. I don’t remember my teachers going into detail about why I needed eight hours, what happens if you don’t get eight hours of sleep, or how to fit eight hours of sleep into a busy schedule. As I reflect on my changing schedule, I realized that in elementary school, it was easy to be in bed by 8:00 p.m. and then get up at 6:30 a.m. But when I got to middle school, getting enough sleep, while also finishing my homework and participating in school activities began to become a challenge. Now, in my first few weeks of high school, it has been nearly impossible to get the recommended amount of sleep every night. I start my day by arriving at school at 6:45 in the morning and participating in the school drama and student council. Then, after school, I participate in show choir, debate, madrigals, and the theater; this usually keeps me at school until around 8:30 p.m. When I get home, I try to finish my homework, have a snack, do some yoga, and get ready for bed. This means I am spending over 14 hours on school activities and school work alone —then I have to fit in eating, spending time with family, and physical activity. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day for me to fit in eight hours of sleep.
Though I want to get more sleep, I also feel pressured to participate in as many extracurricular activities as possible in order to be successful. Additionally, when we have a test to study for, or need to stay late at school, sleep is the first thing that gets sacrificed. This is the teenage dilemma. Most teens recognize that they need more sleep, but they also want to have a balanced life and take advantage of after-school opportunities. I know I’m not the only one, as the Teens & Sleep Survey shows, 74 percent of high school students have a sleep deficit and many of them have school days that on average, are over 11 hours a day.
On an average school night, I shoot for at least eight hours of sleep and catch up on the weekends by getting nine or more hours. Unfortunately, certain times during the year are busier than others, making it hard to not only get enough sleep but also to be consistent with my sleep schedule. Even though I always try and aim for eight hours, it’s rare that I am consistent.
There is not much sleep education at school, therefore, I had to learn how my sleep affects my day through trial and error. I have noticed that when I get enough sleep, I make much healthier choices. It is much easier to get out of bed right away and eat a nutritious breakfast. Overall, I am more aware of the choices I make throughout the day. I also tend to participate in class more often and can think of the bigger picture during simple classroom activities. When I get enough sleep I feel energized, cheerful, and ready for a challenge, but when I don’t, my mornings feel like I am moving in slow motion. I don’t think about how the choices I am making will impact the next 16 hours of my day. Not only is my focus is off, but my whole day feels rushed. By my last period of the day, I oftentimes find myself getting frustrated easily and feeling upset when I don’t immediately grasp a concept. I know I am not the only one who experiences this because I often hear students complain about how tired they are. During my classes, I see people yawning and fighting to stay awake through the lectures.
We need more sleep education as well as knowledge on how to implement better sleep habits in our day — this enables students to implement realistic action plans that can lead to healthy choices. We also need support from schools and communities to help us create better schedules that allow us to get enough sleep. As students, we don’t necessarily have all of the answers to our questions on sleep, therefore, we need leaders to bring our questions into the discussion: How can we become less busy? How do we make sleep a priority? How do we fit sleep into any schedule?
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