Insomniac students: The battle for sleep

Munirih (left) and Sarah say most people, to some degree, do experience sleep difficulty. All pictures: Damien Nguyen


Staying up late and not sleeping much is just normal, Monash students say.

With the focus on R U OK?  Day this week, the lack of sleep is highlighted as one of a number of factors that can exacerbate mental health issues for students. 

An inability to sleep at regular bed times and for a healthy seven to nine hours has established links to depression, with 60-90 per cent of patients with depression having insomnia, according to a study by the Sleep Health Foundation. 

Almost all the students Mojo spoke to this week labelled  themselves as “night” people,  doing most of their work during the hours commonly associated with sleep.

Shiamak says: “I’ll usually be up till like 4 or 5am easily.”

For Shiamak, a post-graduate international journalism student, university’s “unstructured” lifestyle means his sleeping habits are off-set by heavy social media use at night and university assignments.

“I prefer working at night, so if I have to do an assignment or something, I’ll usually be up till like 4 or 5am easily. Simply because I like to work in the dead of night, where there’s no distraction, or sound, it’s just me and the work,”  Shiamak says.

For Munirih, sleeping is a difficult process, as it is common for her to have “one all-nighter a week”.

“I do think that uni makes me procrastinate sleep as well, because in some ways you don’t want to face upcoming deadlines or due-dates. Sometimes I feel like the reason why I’m delaying sleep, it’s so that I can stretch out the day as much as I can,”  Munirih says.

The issue with university’s workload and deadlines was echoed by Sarah, who says she gets on average  three to five hours of sleep a night.

“All-nighters are common for me as well. I find that it gets worse with uni definitely. If I got assignments due, or a lot of stress, it definitely impacts my sleep and make me find it more difficult to fall asleep,” says Sarah, a second-year student.

She labels the “unstructured” nature of university as having an impact on her sleeping patterns, with its “periods of intense work and then weeks without much” contributing to her inability to switch off her mind before she goes to bed.

Both women think “a majority of people, to some degree, do experience sleep difficulty” and label the common inability of students to sleep properly as a legitimate health concern.

Rachel says: “I have trouble falling asleep early, because my sleep pattern is a bit wrecked”

Third-year medical student Haeni agrees, saying “people just have less sleep nowadays”.

Haeni says: “It’s normal for us to stay up late and not sleep”

“It’s kind of normal to the point where no one really gets enough sleep and it doesn’t really matter whether you’re up late procrastinating, studying or hanging out with friends. I figure at our age demographic, it’s normal for us to stay up late and not sleep,” Haeni says.

The impact of social media is also another pattern that emerges from the interviews, as  many students report using YouTube, Netflix, Facebook and other social media platforms on their phones before turning to bed.

Clinical psychology PhD candidate  Nathan Wilson, who is based at the Monash Institute of Cognitive and Clinical Neuroscience, says these devices interfere with normal sleep.  

“That blue light that comes out of our modern devices is of a spectrum of light that actually delays the secretion of melatonin, which is the hormone that is naturally released in our system that gives us part of the signal to wind down and go to sleep,” he says.

Nathan says the combination of blue light, social media “cognitive stimulation” and poor sleep environments creates “sleep difficulties that can kick off other mental health difficulties” such as insomnia and mood swings.

It also causes “social jet lag”. “When you’re a university student, you have a very irregular sleep schedule,” Nathan says.

“So Friday night you might be up all hours, or Saturday night and then you might sleep in for nearly a whole day, and then you might be up one night and then early the next night.

“For your body, that’s like getting on a plane, crossing different time zones and then flying back and its called ‘social jet lag’,” he said. 

Mel says: “I feel more angry and dissociative when running on less sleep.”

The prevalence of blue light effects were seen in Mel, who says she on average only had four and a half hours of sleep a night, and finds  sometimes she needs her phone to help her sleep.

“I have to keep myself occupied; sometimes being on my phone helps me fall asleep. I find it hard to sleep,”  Mel, a second-year Arts student, says.

She says she considers herself an insomniac and is more “angry and dissociative when running on less sleep” and will nap often to mitigate the lack of sleep.

This inability to fall asleep is echoed by Rachel and Chris, both of whom are up until past 2am nightly.

Rachel, a third-year Clayton arts student, finds she stays up later because she feels more productive at night and too “groggy” in the morning.

Half the time, the reason she stays up to late is “social media distractions, and then the other half of it is stress”.

Chris says: “I feel better if I wake up earlier, regardless of how much sleep I get.”

For third-year Arts student Chris, whose latest time before going to bed this semester is 5am, finds that when he enters his “flow state”, it becomes very “easy to lose track of time”. He is going to bed later and later, he says.

“I feel better if I wake up earlier, regardless of how much sleep I get. I value getting more sleep, it does have some benefits, but none that I’ve really seen or fully experienced.”

The inability to sleep also means many students find it difficult to get out of bed, with second-year Arts student Sam, who stayed up 48 hours in a row, making a distinction between waking up and getting up.

Sam says: “My bed is the most amazing and wonderful thing in the world and I don’t want to leave it.”

“Wake up no, get up, yes. It’s because my bed is the most amazing and wonderful thing in the world, and I don’t want to leave it, because it’s warm and delicious and fantastic. And outside is all cold and gross.”

And so how can this sleep problem be improved?

Nathan says  students need to prioritise sleep a little bit more.

“The reality is, with students, there’s always going to be irregularities with sleeping … what we need to do is find a way to get enough sleep and still do the things we all need to do,” he says.

“Sleep is important for keeping us physically and emotionally healthy.”