Penn is the university that never sleeps. I live in a hall with 29 other people, and I doubt that there has ever been a moment when all of us were asleep. Coursework, extracurriculars, parties, and workouts combine to shape a uniquely packed schedule for each of us. People are generally left to their own devices to squeeze some sleep in between their commitments, resulting in vastly different sleep patterns.
But the patterns that we settle into aren’t always healthy: according to the National College Health Assessment, 25% of Penn undergraduates and 12.8% of Penn graduate students said sleep impacted their academic performance within the past year. Both of those statistics are higher than the national average. Although more attention is being paid to stress and depression, we have yet to focus on sleep as an important health issue for Penn students.
Of course, quantity of sleep is important, but quality of sleep is important as well. According to Student Health Service Executive Director Dr. Giang Nguyen, “Getting adequate and good quality sleep is one of the most important things you can do for your academic success and personal wellbeing. Poor sleep disrupts concentration, cognition, immunity, and mood. Poor sleep can also worsen or increase risk for some chronic diseases.”
Many Penn students are missing out on quality sleep. Living with tight schedules in an unfamiliar environment often jeopardizes their chance of sleeping soundly. Claire Pince (E '21) started taking melatonin supplements when she first came to Penn to get enough sleep in a new environment. Since then, she has become dependent on melatonin for a good night’s sleep. Claire is still trying to figure out how to return to a natural sleep cycle.
Students can have trouble with not just with how they fall asleep, but when they fall asleep as well. Kassidy Houston (C '21) is going through something that resembles a prolonged jet lag: she takes long naps in the afternoon and gets her work done at night when everyone else is sleeping. “Having a sleep rhythm opposite of everyone else’s can be very isolating,” she says.
There are two routes for Penn students to get help with their sleep problems. Student Health Services can provide clinical one–on–one provider interactions for severe sleep disorders. Campus Health, the public health division of Student Health Services, can help students take better care of their sleep through developing healthy sleep patterns and controlling environmental cues.
At the core of Campus Health’s efforts is a seven–week self–help program called Refresh. Students who enroll in the Refresh program are emailed a PDF with a lesson and a sleep diary every week, which they can use to improve the quality of their sleep. The lessons take no more than 20 to 30 minutes each, and according to Rebecca Huxta, Associate Director for Campus Health, topics covered can range from meditation techniques to dealing with stress. On the sleep diaries, students record what time they went to bed, what time they woke up, and how their sleep was. Kassidy is among the 800+ students who have signed up for the program this semester, and she says that seeing her sleep pattern recorded on the sleep diary has been helpful. The sleep diaries can also be helpful for review if students decide to get an appointment with Student Health, which will then provide clinical support.
It is important to know which route you should turn to for your sleep issues. Ashlee Halbritter, Director of Campus Health, says, “Refresh is not going to fix your insomnia, but refresh will teach you how to get better quality sleep. It's not necessarily created for those with severe severe sleep disorders but for the general student body who just wants to figure out how to sleep a little bit better.”
If you want help with a unique problem, turning to an individual consultation could be a better idea. Kassidy, for one, is unsure if the Refresh program could help with her problem since it is quite unique; she says “it’s hard to catch everyone in the same net” as Refresh is a group educational program. However, even if you do have problems beyond a night owl roommate or sunlight invading your room, Campus Health can help. Claire is using a sleep mask that she got from a study break last semester, and hopes that Campus Health would host more events so that more people would be aware of the help they can get.
In the end, the most important thing to remember is that help is available. “Sleep," Halbritter says, "is tightly connected to physical, mental, emotional, and social health.” You would have to decide exactly what kind of help you need, but Penn is here to help.