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Sleepless in College: Why Students Are Turning to Sleep Medication (and What to Do About It)

By Kyle Arjoonsingh

College is a time of intellectual growth, personal exploration and…sleep issues? The pressure to succeed can be immense, pushing students to their limits, often at the expense of their health. A new trend, the misuse of sleep medication, often referred to as "sleepy meds," is emerging with potentially serious consequences. A 2021 study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that a staggering 40% of college students reported using prescription sleep aids in the past year. 

Hillary Marte, a sophomore information systems major at Adelphi University, exemplifies this struggle. Diagnosed with insomnia and anxiety, she has been relying on prescription Ambien and over-the-counter Benadryl to manage her sleep for the past year. 

"College has been the most stressful time of my life, and I always feel like a ticking time bomb ready to explode," she said. "No one likes having insomnia, but the ability to take a pill that puts me at ease right after a strenuous day of class and studying is what I take solace in… I know it's not healthy, but neither is the pressure put on us to do well." 

Marte's story is not uncommon.            

"Sleep has now been brought to the forefront of medicine whereas we did not acknowledge it before," said Stephanie Romiszewski, a sleep psychologist based in Exeter, England. “This current generation understands the importance of sleep health more than the generations before. What ends up happening is that the pressure to excel often creates a conflict.”

This reliance on medication reflects the "huge pressure for college students to perform, and that often affects their sleep schedules," Romiszewski added. “Faced with heavy workloads and looming deadlines, sleep becomes the first casualty.”

“Misusing prescription medication is where many problems begin, especially for college students,” said Krish Maharaj, a licensed psychiatrist based in Brooklyn, New York. “I have seen my own patients suffer from overdoses and irreversible health problems all because they think they can knock out two birds with one stone by taking medication for a matter it was not prescribed for.

“Sleep medications are supposed to be for short-term sporadic use and are in fact habit-forming,” he continued. “While they might make you feel better at that moment, consistent use will open doors to detrimental health issues.” 

While sleep medication may seem like it offers a quick fix to sleep-related issues, the overarching issue is individuals not properly taking care of their sleep hygiene. The good news is that there are safe and effective ways to improve sleep. Here are a few tips to try, as recommended by Romiszewski:

  • Develop a consistent sleep schedule: Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day, even on weekends.

  • Create a relaxing bedtime routine: Take a warm bath, read a book or listen to calming music before bed.

  • Avoid screens before bed: The blue light emitted by electronic devices can disrupt your sleep cycle.

  • Exercise regularly: However, avoid strenuous activity close to bedtime.

  • Optimize your sleep environment: Make sure your bedroom is dark, quiet and cool.

College is a demanding time, but sacrificing your health for academics isn't the answer. Don't hesitate to talk to your doctor or a mental health professional. They can help you identify any underlying causes of your sleep problems and develop a personalized plan to improve your sleep quality and overall well-being. Remember, prioritizing healthy sleep habits is an investment in your overall well-being.           

As for Marte, she said, “I’ve been doing better but I'll be honest, managing my sleep has been really stressful especially with finals coming up. Looking back, I wish I'd known a little more about healthy sleep habits before resorting to medication. The medication was not really sustainable. It works in the moment but I know it’s not healthy.” 

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