If this past year has taught me anything, it’s how important it is to care for our mental health. While COVID has changed many facets of our lives, one of the positives to come out of the pandemic is our collective willingness to be candid about our mental health and the difficulties that we’ve been facing in our daily lives. By challenging the stigma associated with mental health issues, we can create an open and supportive environment and work together to care for ourselves and others around us.  At UCI, the health and wellbeing of our students are always our top priority. This is why it’s important for faculty, staff, and other members of the Anteater community to understand the common challenges that students face and how we can help. With this goal in mind, I’m excited to work with the UCI Counseling Center to gain better insight on mental wellness and share their expertise with the larger UCI audience. This way, we can better identify students who may need help and know where to refer them to.

Since the pandemic started, one of the things that I have personally struggled with is getting enough sleep each night. From conversations that I’ve had with colleagues and students, I know that I’m not the only one suffering from sleeplessness. This is why I was so excited to speak with Dr. Katie Ohene to learn more about the causes of sleep deprivation, its effects on the health of our students, and how we can help them combat this serious issue.  As a UCI Counseling Center postdoctoral fellow, Dr. Ohene provides clinical services for UCI students, such as individual and group therapy sessions. She is also a member of the Counseling Center’s Outreach Committee, where she plans and organizes events that distribute preventative mental healthcare information to students. Finally, she also serves as a liaison to the Center for Black Cultures, Resources & Research (CBCRR), where she offers drop-in hours for counseling consultations and services. Dr. Ohene’s main goals include breaking down mental health stigmas for racial minorities and laying a strong foundation for what therapy can do to help young adults. While therapy can be focused on personal topics, she also wants to help students understand that it can be a place to process external events and stressors like the pandemic. This is why Dr. Ohene is perfectly suited to discuss sleep deprivation, as it is one of the common mental health challenges students have faced during the pandemic.

Vice Provost Dennin: Many people, including myself, complain of being “sleep-deprived.” But when I think about it, I don’t necessarily know what this term means. So, what exactly is sleep deprivation?

Dr. Ohene: That is a really good question! Everyone talks about sleep deprivation in different terms, and there are so many channels out there, but the National Sleep Foundation and a few other medical foundations like the Cleveland Clinic define this in a broad category. Basically, sleep deprivation is a condition where you’re not getting enough sleep. Another broad term that’s used to describe this is “sleep deficiency.” And this can mean several different things. 

It can mean that you’re having trouble falling asleep, so you end up staying up late and not getting an adequate amount of sleep. It can also mean that you’re getting poor quality sleep, where you go to bed but you’re tossing and turning and waking up throughout the night. 

According to the National Sleep Foundation, young adults typically need about seven to nine hours of sleep. While this will differ for every person, we all need a certain amount of sleep to function at our best and be healthy. When we are not getting this minimum amount of sleep, we are suffering from sleep deprivation.

Vice Provost Dennin: You mention needing sleep to be healthy, and I know that many of us have heard warnings about needing a full night’s sleep. But what are some of the specific consequences of sleep deprivation?

Dr. Ohene: There are so many different negative impacts of sleep deprivation, and they encapsulate mental, emotional, and even physical health. In the short term, sleep deprivation can affect your ability to consolidate information and can make you feel more irritable, agitated, and tired during the day. 

If sleep deprivation becomes a chronic issue, then you can face more serious problems like increased feelings of stress and anxiety. This in turn can increase depressive symptoms and can cause individuals to self-isolate. Sleep deprivation can also impact our immune systems and make us more likely to get sick. Which, during the pandemic, is also scary and stressful.

It can also increase the risk of using substances like alcohol or marijuana as a sleep aid. Unfortunately, while these substances may help you fall asleep, they don’t usually improve sleep quality because they leave you tossing and turning and you can wake up feeling even more groggy or hungover. Additionally, there’s research that suggests that sleep deprivation can impact our weight and increase our likelihood of developing diabetes or cardiovascular issues.

Vice Provost Dennin: Speaking of the pandemic, in my various roles at UCI and also as a father of several children who are in college, I have seen how students can struggle with getting enough sleep under normal circumstances. However, the pandemic has definitely exacerbated this problem. In your opinion, what are some of the reasons for this?

Dr. Ohene: So a year ago at the beginning of the pandemic, we all went into isolating and being at home, and a lot of us were like “Oh, I can watch Netflix all day while I work!” There was a different type of work-life balance that people were excited about. But as the pandemic stretched on, it got to a point where days started to bleed into each other and the lines between school and work and personal life got blurred. When you’re going to school and working from home, there is this assumption that you can be more productive. Unfortunately, this pressure can push people to keep working, stay up later, and neglect sleep.

Additionally, many students had other responsibilities and stressors that kept them from getting enough rest. Whether it was increased familial expectations, at-home distractions, financial concerns, or general feelings of uncertainty and restlessness, these factors also affected students’ sleep schedules.

Disrupting our typical sleep schedules can throw off our natural circadian rhythms. Our bodies have natural cues for sleep and wakefulness. When it gets dark, our bodies want to prepare for sleep. When it’s light, our bodies respond with feelings of wakefulness. However, when we start going to bed at 2 am and waking up at 11 am, we disrupt these natural reactions, and this makes it increasingly difficult to get back on a good sleep schedule. This can create a continuous cycle that keeps people in a state of sleep deficiency. 

Vice Provost Dennin: This is interesting because, for many students (and faculty and staff as well), the idea of pulling “all-nighters” or operating on little sleep and a lot of caffeine is sort of embedded in university culture. It’s become a very normal and accepted thing, and many students may not necessarily realize that it’s having a major negative effect on their health and wellbeing. What are some of the signs of sleep deprivation that students should look out for?

Dr. Ohene: Some major signs to watch out for are differences in your attitude or focus. So, if you aren’t normally irritable or agitated but you find yourself being short or aggressive towards others, then this could be a sign that you’re suffering from sleep deprivation. If you find that you are more tired during the day and are having trouble focusing on school or work, then this could also be an indication that you’re not getting enough sleep. 

Changes in your personality or mood are also something to watch out for. If you are normally very outgoing and active but find that you are suddenly isolating yourself and feeling unmotivated to do your normal workouts, then this can be a sign of sleep deprivation. If you find that you are more prone to sudden shifts in mood or are feeling more sad and withdrawn than usual, then this can also be attributed to not getting enough sleep.

Finally, if you find yourself feeling more run down and getting sick more often than usual, then this could also be your body’s response to sleep deprivation.

Vice Provost Dennin: So if a student recognizes that they may be suffering from sleep deprivation, or if a faculty or staff member suspects a student may not be getting enough sleep, what are some of the things they can do to combat this issue?

Dr. Ohene: Fortunately, there is a plethora of tips and strategies that students can use to improve their sleep. When I talk with students about this issue, one of the things I stress is practicing good “sleep hygiene.” Initially, many students are kind of confused by this, so I like to relate this concept to dental hygiene.

Having good dental hygiene typically requires you to carry out a consistent routine on a daily basis. For instance, you might brush and floss your teeth and use fluoride regularly. Having good sleep hygiene follows the same idea: you establish a normal routine that helps you wind down and prepare for sleep. This means going to bed and waking up at the same time every day. This way your body is attuned to this schedule, and as your normal bedtime approaches, you will start feeling sleepy. 

Good sleep hygiene can also include things like avoiding eating or consuming caffeinated drinks before bed, listening to sleep meditations, doing relaxing stretches, or practicing deep breathing exercises to help you prepare for sleep. If you are feeling anxious, then you can try externalizing your stress by journaling or preparing to-do lists for the following day as part of your sleep routine. I think that knowing you can pick up right where you left off makes it easier to empty your head and fall asleep at night.

Another great way to get more sleep is by creating an environment where you can actually get a restful sleep. Your bedroom should be a place for things like relaxing and sleeping. However, due to the pandemic, many students are probably studying and working in their bedrooms. An important part of creating a good sleep environment is being able to separate between work and relaxation. So, think of creative ways to change up your space so you can make a distinction between work time and bedtime.

Because light signals wakefulness, I also recommend turning off your lights about 30 minutes before bed. If you’re on your phone or watching something on your laptop before bed, then I also encourage you to dim the lights on your devices as well. If you find that being on your phone or laptop keeps you from going to bed at your normal time, then try to cut yourself off before you actually settle into sleep. Keeping your devices out of your immediate reach can help you avoid the temptation. Other tips for creating a good sleep environment include keeping your room at a comfortable temperature, surrounding yourself with comfortable bedding, and doing your best to limit excess noise.

These are just a few strategies that students can implement in their daily lives. There’s certainly a wide array of things that I haven’t talked about here, but I think that these ideas give students a good place to start.

Vice Provost Dennin: I think that these are some really great options! Thank you so much for taking the time to share your expertise. This information will go a long way in helping not only students but the faculty and staff that support them as well!

Resources The UCI Counseling Center offers a variety of services and resources for students who may need additional support. All currently enrolled UCI students can access free Counseling Center services. Students can sign up for individual therapy appointments, join group therapy sessions and workshops, and receive referrals for off-campus mental health services on their website here. The Counseling Center also provides online self-help services. To determine which type of service is right for you, students can check this helpful guide here. The Counseling Center has also compiled a list of mental health resources for students, faculty and staff, and parents and families. Their site also features a large collection of wellness resources covering topics such as managing stress during the pandemic, self-care during quarantine, and much more.  For quick tips, helpful videos, and the latest news on upcoming events, we also encourage students to check out the Counseling Center’s Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube channel. While the health and wellbeing of our students should always be a top priority, I want to remind UCI faculty and staff that their mental health is also important. If you need additional support, please know that UCI has services and resources to help. I encourage you to reach out to your supervisor or explore the UCI Faculty/Staff Support Services website here to learn about your many options. Faculty/Staff Support Services is a free and confidential resource available to all faculty and staff.