Burning Out: The link between mental health and sleep on campus

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I felt heavy.

Like the weight that comes with tired, overworked muscles after a long run. Except this weight came without the euphoric after-workout high, and instead skipped right to pure exhaustion. The deep, unending roots of fatigue clung to me daily, diminishing my ability to contribute at work, in class, and in my relationships. I was perpetually, unwaveringly tired. Sleep became my only means of escape.

Even in 2015, we’re still just beginning to recognize the connection between sleep patterns and mental health. According to surveys conducted by the American College Health Association in 2012, 6 percent of undergraduate students have considered suicide. Of these students, only half reached out for help. In a society that runs on personal endurance and mental fortitude, data from the last few decades shows a correlation between mental health issues on campuses and our high-pressure western culture. A study conducted by the National Institutes of Health confirmed that as many as 90 percent of subjects surveyed who had clinical depression also reported issues with sleep.

After I lost my mother in the summer of 2012, I struggled to navigate my academic life while simultaneously enduring the crippling effects of major depression and anxiety. I was in my early twenties, and felt both sedentary and completely out of control. I watched the days pass, and dissociated myself from the reality of time commitments and social norms.

I was struggling with more than just grief, but was unable to recognize my side effects as anything beyond what was considered normal college student behavior. I was tired, run down, and unmotivated to attend class—just like any other college student. The very environment I was living in advertised a lifestyle that included copious amounts of coffee, binge drinking, and all nighters.

Natasha Kataeva, a student at the University of Minnesota, suffered similarly from depression and anxiety that worsened after she unexpectedly lost a friend sophomore year. While trying to push through her grief, her schoolwork suffered and she was guided to the University Student Counseling Service by a concerned community adviser at her dorm.

Natasha Kataeva.

Natasha Kataeva.

Kataeva started her battle with mental illness by first attending regular therapeutic sessions at Boynton’s Mental Health Clinic her freshman year and lowering her credit load, and later was placed on antidepressants as a junior when her friend passed away. Kataeva is now in her last semester, with only two credits to finish before she can take home her diploma. Despite her personal growth through treatment, Kataeva says she still struggles to balance school, finances, and stress on a daily basis.

“I’m constantly either not getting enough sleep, or I’m oversleeping because getting out of bed is the hardest thing,” she says. “I have a hard time falling asleep because my mind is always running at a million miles an hour and I can’t turn it off. When I finally do fall asleep, depression makes it hard to wake up, because all I want to do is stay in bed and not face the real world.”

Russell Barnes, 22, also says his lack of effort toward classwork was a direct reflection of his struggle with depression as a student at the University of Minnesota.

Russell Barnes.

Russell Barnes.

The worse his depression got, the more Barnes struggled to reach out for help. “I slept too much, I felt exhausted,” he says. “But it’s not like you wake up and you think, like ‘oh my god, I think I’m mentally ill.’ This is something that has an onset period, and it goes on and on and on. There are multiple warning signs that you don’t realize are warning signs, until it’s too late.”

Misconceptions surrounding sleep and mental health on campus continue to feed a social stigma around mental illnesses, which only makes affected students more hesitant to seek guidance from professionals on campus. According to a survey conducted by the University of Michigan research organization “Healthy Minds Network,” one in every three college students screens positive for a mental disorder.

Even more concerning is that less than half of these students actually receive treatment.  

“I have a very strong interest in the public health approach to mental health,” says Gary Christenson, a chief medical officer at Boynton Health Service, says.  “I truly believe that just having brick buildings with psychiatrists in them is not going to be adequate. You really need to go out to the entire environment and make a preventative strategy.”

Gary Christenson.

Gary Christenson.

Sleep continues to be the University’s bigger challenges, according to Christenson. “There’s a thought that if you push yourself to have more time that you are going to master more, but the research doesn’t necessarily support that,” he says. “Therefore, if you think that I’m going to put all these hours in, and that’s not effective studying and you haven’t grasped it, then you put in more hours the next day and you just keep feeding into this bad feedback loop.”

Insomnia, hypersomnia, low energy, and poor concentration can be symptoms of depression and anxiety, as well as an overloaded semester, which can make telling the difference between situational stress and mental illness tricky. Christenson says this is why intervention from a trained medical care provider is so important.

“If you are having these symptoms every day and night for at least two weeks and they are coupled with other symptoms like appetite change or loss of interest in everyday activities, it’s time to see a doctor,” Christenson says. “It’s persistence, frequency and constellation of other symptoms that guide us, as professionals, in figuring out what’s going on.”



For some people, sleep issues lead to depression. For others, depression leads to sleep issues. Here are a few tips to help stay in tune with your mental health and sleep patterns.

Monitor changes in your sleep habits.

Is your mind racing and causing you to suffer from insomnia? Are your thoughts of worry, pressures from the day, and inability to find any joy in activities you once loved causing you to sleep excessively or not at all? If these symptoms last more than two weeks, Gary Christenson, chief medical officer at Boynton Health Service, suggests seeking professional help.

Make sleep a priority.

It’s easy to think staying up late and completing tasks makes the next day easier, however research actually shows that accruing sleep debt can lead to decreased mental performance and higher levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.

Talk to your primary care doctor.

They have the training to treat your symptoms and help guide you to the proper treatment. If making an appointment with a Psychiatric doctor feels too intimidating, your primary care doctor can help you identify whether what you’re dealing with is a mental illness, or the side effects of temporary stress—and then advise you on how to move forward.

Take care of yourself.  

Whether it’s yoga, meditation, socializing, or taking a one-credit course on well-being, find something that acts as an outlet for you. Need some tips on winding  down after a long day? Check out our Health & Wellness section for yoga poses, natural remedies, and recipes that will help you disconnect.


Katie Dalager is a blogger and mental health advocate living in Minneapolis.