Is Lack of Sleep Causing Depression in College Students?

Not getting enough of sleep is one of the most difficult life changes we face when coming to college. Pulling all-nighters (sometimes with the help of energy drinks and coffee) has become a staple of college culture. It seems like there aren’t enough hours in the day to get everything completed, and staying up late becomes the only option to combat the large workload being placed upon us. Obviously not getting enough of sleep has physical consequences, such as waking up tired the next morning, but what about psychological consequences? Does sleep deprivation affect our mental health?

There was a study conducted in 2010 that tried to come

to a conclusion of whether or not lack of sleep had a relationship with depression or depressive-like symptoms. Questionnaires were sent to 1,100 (18-22-year-old) student mailboxes at a women’s college with questions that asked about their sleeping habits. This is an observational study because the scientists are not changing the lifestyles of the students, they are merely asking questions about their sleep schedules. Examples of some of the questions found on this two-page questionnaire were the students’  bedtimes, consumption of caffeine, time they wake up, and if they experience sleepiness during the daytime. Levels of depression were based on the CES-D and HAM-D scales.

They found that the women who went to bed at 2:00 a.m. or later showed depression tendency scores higher than those of the women who reported bedtimes before 2:00 a.m. The scientists also discovered that those students who consumed an average of two cups of coffee or more a day, tended to fall asleep at 2:00 a.m. or later. The mechanism behind this is that coffee contains caffeine and that can make you less tired, causing your bedtimes to be prolonged. Alcohol and tobacco products (confounding variables) were also reported to affect sleeping patterns through disrupting sleep and/or oversleeping. Lack of sleep, the scientists found, shows a positive correlation with melancholic depressive symptoms. Chronic sleep disruptions are a sign of melancholic depression, and so it is not surprising that students who went to bed at 2:00 a.m. or later showed higher levels of this disease.

Reverse causation is possible here because those that suffer from depression can have a lack of sleep due of feelings of anxiety or distress. Confounding variables such as type of major, workload, and social pressures could also create sleeping patterns that result in higher levels of depression. It would be valuable to know what the cut-off for the amount of sleep a person should get each night so that they lower the risk of having this disease. Also, this study only analyzes the habits of women and it would be interesting to compare results from a co-ed or male focused study to see if there is any variance. Although correlation does not equal causation, this study (despite its smaller size), does show that there seems to be a strong correlation between lack of sleep and signs of depression. After reviewing this study, I will be more mindful about my sleeping patterns and avoid habitually going to bed at 2:00 a.m. or later.




8 thoughts on “Is Lack of Sleep Causing Depression in College Students?

  1. Rebecca Aronow

    I really identify with feeling depressed when I don’t get enough sleep. It’s so hard getting enough sleep as a college student. For me, I have my classes, which all have homework and tests and quizzes, I work at least twice a week, I have a position in two clubs, and on top of all of that I try to maintain a social life and also sleep. Sometimes it seems impossible to balance all of these things. And as the winter comes, it gets darker faster, which makes me tired earlier and I just never want to get out of bed for class in the morning. I definitely agree with you that there’s a lot of confounding variables at play, but in my experience when I don’t get enough sleep I am more irritable and prone to depressive symptoms because of that lack of energy. Another confounding variable that could be at play, especially here at Penn State, are that people who don’t get enough sleep are perhaps partying too hard on the weekends, and it’s been shown that excessive alcohol consumption can lead to depression as well (there can also be reverse causation there as well—depression often leads to excessive drinking). On the National Institute of Mental Health website, some of the many ways they list to help college students overcome depression is to exercise, spend time outside, eat better, spend time with friends, avoid drugs, and of course get enough sleep. They also recommend having consistent sleep patterns so that your body is used to a routine and feels well rested every day. Overall, I definitely think that lack of sleep can contribute to depression, but it’s definitely not the only factor.

  2. Brendan Mironov


    I think this topic hits home with so many students at Penn State because I think it is safe to say that most of wish we could have just a few more hours of sleep each day due to the everyday pressures of college life. To me, there is nothing better than a nice long nights worth of sleep. In addition, when I do not get much sleep, I tend to feel angry and depressed until I take a nap for a few hours to regain some energy. I found it interesting that the study used a bedtime of 2:00am as a baseline to see if students got enough sleep rather than using how many hours of sleep they got a night (ex. 8 hours of sleep/day). I know many of my friends tend to fall asleep later than two in the morning but many of them wake up closer to the afternoon. If a person goes to sleep at one in the morning and wakes up at seven, they would get less sleep than someone who falls asleep at two in the morning and wakes up at noon. Does the amount of sleep affect depression risks or is it just when people fall asleep later? Furthermore, there is an article published by the Huffington Post that shows an increased risk of medical conditions like heart disease, depression, and diabetes when people oversleep (more than 7-9 hours a day). Is there such thing as sleeping too much?

  3. Chelsea Greenberg

    I like the topic you chose because it is very relevant to college kids. You did a good job investigating the issues with the study, such as how it was only done with one gender and one general age group. I think reverse causation is definitely the most plausible explanation. People with depression are more likely to have insomnia and they are also more likely to sleep too much (personal and family experience). These are actually symptoms of depression. Here is an article from WebMD that goes into more depth about the issue.

  4. Luyi Yao

    I’ve learned something related to this topic in the Psycho100. And I know that lack of enough sleep and sleeping irregularly are very unhealthy.( This research is aiming to find relationship between sleep and adolescents. And it provides some same opinion with this post. We’d better get enough sleep everyday in order to keep healthy.

  5. Michael A Lupo

    Although I don’t feel depressed, I do however feel sleep deprived at times. You hit the nail right on the head when you say that sometimes there just aren’t enough hours in the day to complete all of the work thrown at us. The results of the study are interesting although I have a few problems with its design. While I agree that an observational study is a proper method to collect data, I am unsure why they only polled women from one single college. This leaves out another whole sex and whether they are depressed from sleep deprivation or not. I also think that they should diversify the colleges where the collect the data from. This way they can understand a broader spectrum of the data collected. I am also curious as to whether or not any other studies were able to uncover a similar correlation. An article that can be read about here actually argues that sleep deprivation eases depression. This is a fairly new revelation that claims to treat people’s depression with success 60-70% of the time. Although I am anxious to find out more about a study like this, as a whole it seems that the topic needs to be researched further. Scientists don’t seem to have a firm grasp on whether it’s the third variable coffee causing the sleep deprivation and the depression, or whether sleep deprivation is actually an asset to depression. Give the article a read and let me know what you think.

  6. Olivia Mei Zhang

    Hey Valerie,
    I really liked how you analyzed the results of the observational study and took into account confounding variables. I also think that reverse causation is definitely a possibility; people with depression may suffer from heightened anxiety and have the inability to fall asleep, resulting in minimal amount of sleep. I wonder how an actual experiment could test the hypotheses that minimal amount of sleep causes depression. I found this article about the effects of sleep deprivation on the mind and body (check it out!):

  7. Cristen Heaton

    I actually relate to this post a lot on multiple levels. I suffer from depression and I sleep ALL the time. I recently just took a 5 hour nap in the middle of the day, 11AM-4PM. I went to the doctor a couple weeks ago and expressed my concerns to him and he suggested I get my blood tested, but the more I thought about I know I have the feeling of doing nothing and I am so lazy sometimes so that made me realize that my depression was resurfacing again. We ended up switching medicine around and I do feel a lot better but relating this back to your post, I do go to bed before 2 AM every night and I still have the same feelings. But I agree 110% when I am tired, my symptoms get 10 times worse. I also do think it is very interesting how they also did this study just on women. Like you stated above, it would be interesting to see the results if they did this co-ed or just males. The results would definitely be different. This study does have confounding variables such as gender.

  8. Shannon Hughes

    When reading this post, I easily could agree that lack of sleep can cause depression. As I tried to research a mechanism for why this is, I could not find a reason as to why but I did come across something else. I am working on a blog inspired by a Scientific American article ( that suggests the idea that sleep deprivation could actually serve as an ease to depression. Researchers found that throughout the day, our brain builds up the neurotransmitter adenosine which has an antidepressant effect on people. However, this elevation in mood only lasts as a person stays awake until they fall asleep. Once they wake up, they are back to their original levels of depression.

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