What keeps you up at night?
Insomnia and sleepless stints are common issues for many people, especially those with other mental health woes. Now one study has shown there is a direct link.
For students in particular with exam stress and deadline pressures, it can be even worse.
As students return to campus for a fresh onslaught of overnight library stints and other late night affairs; Gay Star News speaks to two LGBTI students who suffer insomnia about their experiences.
I wish I could just fall asleep
Marcus Connolly is the 26-year-old, non-binary pansexual studying at Cardiff University in the south west of the UK. However, he is currently taking a study break for his mental health.
He describes insomnia as ‘anything from crashing because you’ve just not slept in so long. To just not feeling tired, even after a long day, with your brain firing on all cylinders.’
Connolly thinks his insomnia developed from ‘bad Netflix habits’ he traces right back to being 16 and staying up binge-watching TV.
‘By the time I was 18 it had evolved into full-on insomnia. With a combination of exam stress, sexuality and coming out to friends and family – stuff like reading wouldn’t help put me to sleep like it used to.’
Connolly says ‘LGBTI people definitely have more sleepless nights’ because of the added stresses they have in comparison with their straight counterparts.
‘Just working out I’m queer and trying to get my head around it, at a Catholic grammar school, while dealing with homophobic behavior from a Catholic Brummie/Irish dad, and Asian mother – that was enough on its own.
‘Finding people to talk to (as most people at school were in the closet too) and an almost entirely religious staff (it was also a convent with nuns, some of who taught), like with a lack of education about queer folk in any form, definitely kept me up at night.’
Also pansexual, Smart says she suffers insomnia when under a lot of stress.
‘Around exams or when deadlines are looming or when I’m really busy. A few years ago it got bad enough for me to be medicated. After three different lots of sleeping pills we found one that didn’t knock me around too much the next day.’
A 2015 study by the UK National Union of Students showed four in five students faced mental health issues in the last year.
To add to this, on top of the pressures any student faces – another report by the NUS’s LGBT arm in 2014 showed that a fifth of students faces homophobia and a third face transphobia.
Smart suffers from depression and anxiety attacks and recognizes a link between sleep and worse mental health:
‘I suffered from depression. At that time that I wasn’t sleeping. This made me feel more and more tired, sleeping in the daytime meaning that I was behind with my uni work. This also was affecting my relationship with friends and family too. Shutting myself away all day to try and get some work done, just ended me up isolating myself.
‘I do find that my panic attacks occur more frequently on days that I haven’t slept well the night before. Although sometimes can have no relation to my sleep at all, and be totally random too.’
What can you do to help your insomnia?
A new study has shown that treating students’ insomnia can also help with to reduce their other mental health issues.
The study shows sleep disruption is a driving factor in the occurrence of paranoia, hallucinatory experiences, and other mental health problems in young adults and university students.
Published in The Lancet Psychiatry, Oxford University’s controlled trial of 3,755 university students shows digital cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) reduces both insomnia whilst also help levels of anxiety, depression, and paranoia.
The cognitive-behavioral therapy in this study used online program Sleepio. The six online sessions included behavioral, cognitive and educational components. From learning to associate bed with sleep to encouraging people to put time aside to reflect on their day before going to bed.
Daniel Freeman, the study lead and Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Oxford and Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust, said:
‘Sleep problems are very common in people with mental health disorders. For too long insomnia has been trivialized as a symptom, rather than a cause of psychological difficulties. This study turns that old idea on its head.
‘A good night’s sleep really can make a difference. Helping people get better sleep could be an important first step in tackling many psychological and emotional problems.’
Top hints from the NHS Choices website back up Freeman’s reflections on his study.
They suggest if you are struggling to sleep to try these tips:
- Keep regular sleep hours
- Create a restful sleeping environment
- Make sure your bed is comfortable
- Cut down on caffeine (try warm, milky drinks or herbal tea)
- Don’t smoke (nicotine is a stimulant too)
- Write away your worries
Connolly’s final message to those struggling is to remind them ‘caffeine and energy drinks only get you so far.’
Stressing there is ‘nothing wrong with seeking help from either a doctor or psychiatrist if and when you feel able to.
‘If you have to cancel plans because you can’t function, do it because your well-being is important and people will understand if you put your health first.’