Understanding Sleep Disorders in a College Student Population

By Jensen, Dallas R. | Journal of College Counseling, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Understanding Sleep Disorders in a College Student Population


Jensen, Dallas R., Journal of College Counseling


College students sleep habits are changing dramatically, and related sleep problems are increasing. The author reviews the current literature on sleep problems, focusing on the college student population. An explanation of the basics of sleep is provided as a base for understanding sleep disorders. The unique challenges of college settings are discussed as they apply to understanding sleep problems, and suggestions are made for professionals who work with college students.

Human beings will spend approximately one third of their lives in a sleep state, and sleep has been shown to be essential for the maintenance of mental health. Sleep problems of college students, especially full-time students who are experiencing high levels of stress because of the demands of academic performance, present an intriguing topic for examination. Unfortunately, relatively little research has focused on this group of individuals. Most studies have focused instead on young children or older adults. Because college counselors come into contact with clients who experience disordered sleep, I address this concern by first reviewing the literature on college students and their sleep problems and then discussing implications for college counselors who work with students who are experiencing such difficulties.

Sleep problems and disorders have shown a marked increase since serious study of the topic began in the 1950s (Carskadon & Taylor, 1997). In 1993, the National Commission on Sleep Disorders Research submitted an executive report to Congress detailing the results of a comprehensive research investigation. The report examined the then-current state of knowledge about sleep disorders, including the economic and social impact of such problems. The findings indicated that approximately 40 million U.S. residents suffer from primary chronic sleep disorders and that millions more experience at least recurring or intermittent sleep problems. Projective statistics indicated that by the year 2010, 79 million Americans will be affected by sleeping problems, and 40 million will suffer excessive sleepiness. Findings also pointed to extremely high economic and social costs of sleep disorders, as well as serious gaps in the research. It is not difficult to imagine that college students on campuses across the nation will also continue to experience unique difficulties as sleep problems of students increase. The literature that I review throughout this article supports that presumption.

The Changing Sleep Habits of College Students

College is a time of education, development, advancement, and learning, accompanied by a healthy dose of stress. Today's college students experience significant pressures that are brought on by the changing career market and increased competition for jobs. Stress and anxiety, which are almost synonymous with the college experience (Stone & Archer, 1990), can lead to sleep problems and to other disorders. In fact, sleep habits are one of the first daily habits to change for many beginning college students (Pilcher, Ginter, & Sadowsky, 1997).

The sleep habits of college students have changed dramatically over the last several decades. In the 1978-1979 academic year, a sample of 1,839 students slept an average of 7.3 hours, whereas a similar sample of students who were studied 10 years later reported that they slept an average of only 6.87 hours (Hicks, Mistry, Lucero, Marical, & Pellegrini, 1990). Between 1969 and 2001, the median hours of sleep reported by students dropped by more than 1 hour, from 7.75 to 6.65 hours (Hicks, Fernandez, & Pellegrini, 2001a). Not only has the average length of the sleep period decreased for college students, so has the consistency of normal habitual sleep. In 1978, 16% of students reported that they slept for consistent lengths of time, compared with 6.6% of students in 1992 (Hicks, Johnson, & Pellegrini, 1992). Also interesting was the significant difference in the number of students who reported sleep problems. …

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