University of Akron adds nap pods to address student mental health

Before his first day of classes at the University of Akron, Aaron Martin just couldn’t fall asleep Sunday night.

“I was nervous,” he said. “I didn’t know what to expect.”

The freshman, studying vocal performance, tossed and turned until he finally fell asleep around 4 a.m. Then he got up at 8 am for a full day of classes.

He worked all morning, but around 1 p.m. he found a brief respite at Simmons Hall.

Aaron Martin, 18, a freshman at the University of Akron, relaxes Monday in one of the university's new MetroNaps EnergyPods.

For about 10 minutes, Martin hid in one of the university’s four new MetroNaps EnergyPods. They look a bit like someone who has affixed a giant football helmet to a dentist’s chair. And they encourage the one thing that’s generally discouraged in class or on a student union lounger: taking a nap.

The pod seats tilt back slightly, then the user can choose to rotate the pod shell around their upper body to find relative darkness and quiet. Activating the pod timer on the armrest also starts relaxing music or guided meditation. A soothing voice with an Australian accent – the company is Australian – encourages users to close their eyes and breathe deeply. The pod allows students to store their bags inside the pod with them while they close their eyes.

The controls allow users to set a nap timer and play soft, relaxing music on one of the University of Akron's MetroNaps EnergyPods at Simmons Hall.

Even if students aren’t sleeping, said ZipAssist director Alison Doehring, the goal is to encourage students to take this time for themselves.

ZipAssist is a hub for college student support.

“Even that time to breathe, do your deep breathing exercises and just take a moment, that’s how I think we’ll see students using it,” Doehring said. “Maybe not everyone is going to sleep, but I think people will just appreciate being able to enjoy a semi-private opportunity to breathe and relax.”

Survey data from the past two years has shown that Akron students face an increase in anxiety and depression, Doehring said. His office operates a campus-wide “Refer a Zip” system that allows students or staff to request help for themselves or someone else they may be concerned about. It’s been an effective intervention tool, Doehring said, and helps direct people to the counseling center. But his office continued to work to find ways to help students manage their mental health.

“We kept wondering what else we could do, and maybe nap pods were on that list as an option,” she said. “We started asking students what their thoughts were, how would they use them, where should we put them.”

The pods were purchased with federal COVID relief dollars, allocated by the Ohio Department of Education with Governor’s Emergency Education (GEER) funds to support behavioral health on college campuses and Ohio universities.

The university received $370,000 from the GEER grant and spent $52,000 of it on the four nap modules.

Two are located in Simmons, one at the library and one at the recreation center. So far, Doehring said, they’ve been popular, but word is still spreading and students are still discovering them and learning to use them. The modules will also collect data on their use and students can scan a QR code to take a short survey after using them.

Aaron Martin said he heard about the modules from other students and was glad he found them on his first day on campus.

“It was soothing,” Martin said. “I love music.”

Before figuring out how to close the shell, he improvised by pulling his red hoodie up over his head and covering his eyes. He said he was happy to see the university meeting the needs of the students.

“If people are stressed, they usually can’t sleep,” he said.

Juanita Martin, executive director of the Counseling and Testing Center and Office of Accessibility, said the university’s counseling center usually has a waiting list for services mid-semester. This demand has increased as a result of the pandemic.

“We can see that students are ticking a lot of boxes when it comes to the impact of COVID on their mental health,” Martin said.

Mazen Kiki, a University of Akron student, checks his phone as he relaxes in one of the university's four MetroNaps EnergyPods on Monday.

Students often struggle with stress, she says, and often end up ruminating and anxious. The pods, she said, as much as catching up on sleep, will help students learn coping skills.

“It’s basically saying to a student, stop for a minute and take care of yourself,” she said.

Aaron Martin said he knew word would spread and more students would be helped with the modules, but he might not be rushing to tell everyone just yet.

“I want to keep it all to myself,” he said.

Contact educational journalist Jennifer Pignolet at [email protected], 330-996-3216 or on Twitter @JenPignolet.

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