Psychology Professor Roxanne Prichard, left, and Birdie Cunningham, right, of the Wellness Center, pose for a portrait in front of Aquinas Hall on April 14, 2016 in St. Paul. The two developed a sleep study for the Sleep Center in the Wellness Center.

How a Psychology Professor and a Wellness Director Just Might Put Alarm-Clock Factories Out of Business

Getting plenty of sleep is a good thing. No, we’re not kidding. If you wake up because your body had enough rest … and not because you heard the alarm clock … you are doing it right.

That’s the message that two sleep evangelists at the University of St. Thomas are bringing not only to students and athletes on their St. Paul campus, but to college students across the country and to pretty much anyone who will listen, right down to pre-school toddlers.

The two are Dr. J. Roxanne Prichard, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience, and Birdie Cunningham, associate director of health and wellness. Together they have created and just launched the University of St. Thomas Center for College Sleep.

Believed to be the first its kind in the United States, the center brings together two strengths found on a college campus: serious academic research and the programming skills of student-affairs administrators.

The academic research is Prichard’s department. She has been studying human (and rat) sleep since her doctoral research days at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she earned her Ph.D. in neuroscience in 2004.

A legendary place to catch a nap is the O'Shaughnessy Room of the O'Shaughnessy-Frey Library.

A legendary place to catch a nap is the O'Shaughnessy Room of the O'Shaughnessy-Frey Library.

Cunningham, meanwhile, is the programming whiz. She is the Center for College Sleep’s director of operations and programming and for the past 13 years has been developing and evaluating programs in the areas of sleep along with others dealing with stress, exercise, nutrition, violence and alcohol and tobacco.

Cunningham and Prichard say the mission of their recently launched Center for College Sleep is to improve students’ sleep habits by providing “rigorous research, educational outreach and innovative programming.” You can read more about it on the center’s website here.

Prichard’s research on the lack of sleep was cited by Arianna Huffington recently when she announced The Huffington Post’s Sleep Revolution College Tour, which is coming to 50 campuses across the country this spring.

Prichard’s study, conducted with St. Thomas economics professor Dr. Monica Hartmann, was presented in 2014 at SLEEP, the annual gathering of the Sleep Research Society and the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. The professors found that the negative impact of poor sleep on student grade-point averages is equivalent to the impact of binge drinking and marijuana use. A previous study by Prichard on the patterns of disrupted sleep in college students was published in the Journal of Adolescent Health. That study has now been cited in more than 200 articles.

Huffington’s Sleep Revolution announcement quoted Prichard: “I don’t think sleep problems are often included on the questionnaire intake forms for health services, and that could be explaining a lot of the other problems that you see showing up, including recurrent illnesses.”

“Colleges have in many ways become the boiler room of our burnout culture, with disastrous consequences for our students’ physical and mental health,” Huffington wrote in her announcement, adding that “colleges are uniquely positioned to be key drivers of the Sleep Revolution. That’s why I’m delighted to bring the Sleep Revolution to campuses across the country, and to see how students will make it their own and lead the way -- for themselves, their classmates, and the rest of us -- to the recognition that adequate sleep is essential for our health, our productivity, our relationships and our happiness.”

Huffington isn’t the only one focused on the nation’s sleep woes. The Department of Defense is spending millions on research into how sleep problems are affecting both military and civilian populations. The American College Health Association, meanwhile, named sleep as a top health concern for students and one of five key benchmarks for its 2020 Healthy Campus campaign.

When Huffington’s Sleep Revolution College Tour came to the University of Minnesota in late April, Prichard and Cunningham were there to talk about their new Center for College Sleep, their research and programs.

They have created two tools designed for a national audience:

  1. Their College Sleep Questionnaire, available to universities in June, is a 15-minute, web-based assessment tool that will tell students how their sleep habits compare to national norms in nine areas. It also provides practical advice and can tell students where to go for more help on their campus.
  2. Their College Sleep Environmental Scan, meanwhile, is designed to help college and university administrators see if they are promoting a healthy sleep culture on their campuses. While environmental scans exist for other campus issues, like alcohol safety and openness to GLBT students, this will be the first scan available to assess how campus environmental factors impact students’ sleep.

The scan’s three authors -- Prichard, Cunningham and Lisa Broek from nearby Macalester College -- have been invited to Denver in June to present the project to this year’s national SLEEP gathering. They also have been speaking regionally and nationally about data they’ve gathered so far from the environmental scan project.

While Prichard and Cunningham are helping other campuses assess their environments for heathy sleep habits, they’ve been busy doing just that on their own campus in St. Paul.

With the help of a grant from United Healthcare, they created a personalized sleep-health program called the Sleep Squad. They also give presentations to classes, student clubs and to St. Thomas’ football, softball, basketball and hockey teams.

They found a good way to get an athlete’s attention: tell them about an elite men’s basketball team that showed a 9 percent increase in field goals when the players consistently received nine or more hours of sleep a night.

Meanwhile, their Sleep Challenge (officially named the “Get More ZZZs to Get More A’s Sleep Challenge) is now offered to St. Thomas students each semester and awards prizes for healthy sleep habits.

Participants are given sleep advice, a sleep mask, chamomile tea and a sleep app they use with their smartphones to track the quality of their sleep. After last fall’s challenge, participants showed a 23 percent improvement in sleep quality and 94 percent of them said it took less time to fall asleep.

Prichard also is involved with off-campus efforts dealing with sleep. She’s on the advisory board of Start School Later, a national organization that has been advocating for later start times for high schools. A study found a range of benefits when several Twin Cities-area high schools moved their morning start times 30 to 60 minutes later. It found that more students slept at least eight hours a night, attendance rates and ACT scores rose and tardiness and car accidents declined.

And 17 members of Prichard’s neuroscience capstone Sleep and Circadian Rhythms class this spring are bringing Sweet Dreamzzz educational materials to more than 200 preschoolers who attend Head Start programs located at two St. Paul public-housing neighborhoods.

Sweet Dreamzzz is a Michigan-based nonprofit organization that provides sleep education and bedtime-related products to disadvantaged children and their families. The St. Thomas students will be handing out sleep kits that include a bedtime book, Goodnight Moon, dental items and information for parents.

In a 2014 article for the St. Thomas’ Newsroom, Prichard and Hartmann wrote that “most people severely underestimate the importance of sleep and certainly do not view it as necessary for life, on par with food, water and air for survival. Yet we all need sleep to live.”

When students ask how much sleep is needed, the professors wrote that the answer is simple: “As much sleep as you need so that you don’t need an alarm clock to wake up!”

They said the consensus of the scientific community is that the vast majority of adults require seven to nine hours of sleep each night, and young adults need an extra 30 minutes or so beyond that.

“Yet for most college students, regularly getting that much sleep seems like a Herculean task.

“For college students,” they wrote, “an education is one of the most important investments they and their parents will ever make. But how much of their investment in college is being compromised by poor sleep?”