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Nov 11 2011

Sleep: Forgotten Martyr of College Life

See? It's even on a shirt.

Academicssocial life, and sleeppick two.” -popular advice given to college freshmen

I’m sure you’ve heard that one before. Most college students, it seems, pick the first two.

What surprises me isn’t so much the fact that they do, but the fact that sleep deprivation is considered such a routine part of college life. Nobody seems to see anything wrong with this idea that getting through college necessitates depriving oneself of sleep.

I have a different way of looking at things because I have a different body. More specifically, living with depression means that sleep takes on a central significance in my daily life. Get too little, even by an hour, and I’m facing the sort of fatigue most people experience only after an all-nighter. Get too little too often, and I’m significantly increasing my chances of relapsing.

Most people don’t have depression (though many do, especially in college), but everyone knows, in the backs of their minds, that sleep is really, really important. Lack of sleep is implicated in all sorts of health problems, from susceptibility to stuff like colds and flu, to obesity, diabetes, attention and memory problems, and, of course, depression. Fatigue also makes the other two items on that list, academics and social life, nearly impossible to handle.

What’s strange is that sleep is probably unique in its complete invisibility as a college health issue. Dining halls increasingly provide healthy options, including full salad bars at each of Northwestern’s. Campus medical centers provide free condoms and cheap STI testing. Campus gyms are open from 6 AM to 11 PM each day and provide plenty of free (or cheap) classes, intramural sports teams, and what have you. Counseling centers provide free counseling and stress management workshops (though of course there’s much to be desired in that department). Anti-binge drinking initiatives abound.

But sleep is that subject that nobody ever seems to touch. After all, exercise makes you look good and can be fun, grabbing a free condom is easy, and getting a salad instead of a pizza is no big deal. Getting enough sleep, meanwhile, requires actual lifestyle changes–and, sometimes, actual sacrifices.

Ultimately, though, I think that the whole “pick two” joke is a false dichotomy (trichotomy??). I know that having all three is possible, because I have all three. I have great grades, I have great friends, and I sleep a solid 8-9 hours a night.

(A few weeks ago, frustrated by the fact that I’m usually exhausted by the time I come home from classes at 6 or 7 PM, I called my mom to complain. She said, “Of course you’re tired. It’s normal to be tired after a long day of classes.” Until she told me this, I’d never realized that. Because the campus culture I’m steeped in tells me that I should come home in the evening, go to meetings and do homework until midnight, and then engage in a social life until 2 or 3 or later–or, if I’ve been procrastinating with my homework, I should just stay up all night.)

What worries me most is that people wear their sleepless nights like badges of pride. You never hear anyone say, “Dude, I’ve legit been eating three slices of pizza EVERY DAY this week,” or “Man, guess how long I’ve managed to go without working out!” or “Guess what, guess what? I totally didn’t use a condom last night!”

But they make those comments about their lack of sleep. The only comparison is the way people talk about binge drinking.

Why is sleep deprivation cool? Probably for similar reasons as binge drinking is. It’s a mark of physical endurance, in a way, and it’s a way of displaying that you have the “right” priorities–socializing, usually–and not the “lame” ones.

Yet colleges actively try to combat the culture of binge drinking, but they ignore the problem of sleep deprivation. Why?

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