Sleep knowledge, deprivation in social work students

Wednesday, Oct 18, 2023

By Jaelon Jackson
School of Social Work

 Student sleeping

Sleepless nights have long been a part of the college experience, but a recent study by a University of Texas at Arlington professor and sleep researcher has brought to light a pressing issue among social work students: chronic sleep deprivation. 

Dr. Christine Spadola's recent research represents the first in-depth study of sleep and sleep beliefs among social work students. Findings highlight important sleep knowledge gaps and the need for improved sleep education in social work programs. 

Prior to beginning her work here Dr. Spadola, an assistant professor in UTA’s School of Social Work, completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard Medical School where she helped to investigate the impact of sleep hygiene and yoga intervention in affordable housing communities. Since then, she has led studies to promote sleep health among underserved populations and to improve sleep and sleep health awareness among social work students and social workers. 

Dr. Spadola’s novel, mixed methods study of 25 social work students, investigated sleep quantity, sleep quality, and sleep health knowledge among social work students. Her findings have revealed alarming disparities between the recommended amount of sleep and the actual sleep students are getting.  

According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, adults should aim for 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night for optimal health. However, Dr. Spadola's study found social work students were averaging less than six hours of sleep a night, a significant shortfall.  

This chronic sleep deficit can lead to a range of mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, and impaired cognitive functioning. 

In addition to inadequate sleep duration, the study delved into the quality of sleep experienced by social work students. Many reported the quality of their sleep was poor and cited frequent awakenings and disruptions during the night. This not only affects their mental health but can also impact their ability to concentrate in classes and excel in their field placements. 

One of the most concerning aspects of the study was while students seemed aware of the importance of sleep, sleep was often not prioritized, and stress was a common barrier to obtaining a good night’s sleep. Dr. Spadola compared their knowledge of sleep health to established sleep hygiene recommendations provided by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.  

The results revealed substantial gaps in their understanding of behaviors to promote sleep health, most notably the importance of maintaining a consistent sleep schedule. 

"Sleep is a critical component of mental health, and it's alarming to see that social work students are not getting the rest they need,” Spadola said. “The effects of sleep deprivation can be far-reaching, affecting not only academic performance but also the well-being of these future social workers." 

Another notable knowledge gap is related to alcohol consumption. Some students believed alcohol could aid in falling asleep faster, but Dr. Spadola's research emphasized it could lead to disrupted sleep patterns and fragmented sleep in the later part of the night. 

So, what measures can be taken to address this issue and enhance the sleep habits of social work students?  

Dr. Spadola recommends integrating sleep education into the curriculum as a crucial step. While some professors already touch on sleep-related topics in their courses, formal sleep education remains largely absent from many social work programs across the country.  

Dr. Spadola hopes her research will inspire institutions to recognize the importance of sleep and incorporate it into their self-care and mental health education initiatives. 

Dr. Spadola's research findings underscore the necessity for a comprehensive approach to self-care and mental health in social work education. Sleep, often overlooked, plays a pivotal role in a student's ability to succeed academically and maintain their mental well-being.  

By addressing sleep deprivation and promoting healthy sleep habits, institutions can better support the overall health and success of their social work students. 

As awareness grows within the academic community regarding the significance of sleep in maintaining mental health, it is hoped that colleges and universities will take proactive steps to ensure their students receive the education and support they need to flourish both academically and personally. 

Earlier this year, Dr. Spadola, along with a research team which included Social Work Assistant Professor Dr. Micki Washburn, published a journal article on sleep health focused on practice considerations for social workers.  

Their research focused on exposing poor sleep health is consistently associated with the initiation of substance use, development of substance uses disorders, dropout from treatment and return to use.  

Unfortunately, social workers typically receive little to no training in the assessment and evidence-based treatment of sleep disorders. Moving forward they hope with their continued-research, the information could assist future social workers/clinicians by providing more-equipped diagnostics and a better overall response to patient issues.