Sleep and Teen Mental Health

By Jamison Monroe Jr.

Teens are notorious for not getting enough sleep. For most adolescents, nine hours of sleep is ideal, but very few of them are actually managing that. One study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control showed that less than nine percent of teens get enough sleep, and the amount of sleep they get decreases as they progress through high school.

Why don’t teens sleep enough? Contributing factors include the use of social media, smartphones, and other technological devices; after-school activities that push study times later; and schools with early start times. There are physiological reasons, too: Teens’ internal biological clocks keep them up later at night, and obesity—on the rise among American adolescents—has been found to contribute to sleep issues. Stress and worry resulting from academic and parental pressures, as well as peer relationships, dating, and bullying, can also keep teens awake at night.

Unfortunately, sleep deprivation can take a high toll on teenagers. It’s not just a matter of feeling sleepy in class; an ongoing lack of sleep over time has the potential to affect teen mental health.

Scientists have discovered a link between the loss of sleep and our emotional responses. In studies conducted by Matthew T. Feldner, a professor of psychology at the University of Arkansas, people who lost a night of sleep responded with more emotion to stressors presented in the lab. According to Feldner, sleep loss has a negative impact on the functioning of the emotional regulation circuit of the brain. That means that a teen who gets less sleep will be more apt to have disproportional emotional responses to daily events. Multiply this by adolescent hormonal changes and the fact that the portion of the brain that controls self-regulation is underdeveloped in adolescents, and you’ve got a recipe for a moody, irritable, and reactive teen. This cycle might explain why researchers have found that teens feel more depressed and anxious when they don’t get enough sleep.

It also goes the other way: Sleep issues—whether insomnia or sleeping too much—can be a clear indicator of depression or anxiety. One study showed that people with insomnia are more likely to develop depression and many other psychiatric disorders, including all types of anxiety disorders. But a sleep disorder in itself does not usually cause clinical depression, though it certainly can worsen an existing mental health condition.

Furthermore, not getting enough sleep can increase teens’ likelihood of using drugs and alcohol. A study published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence indicates that the disruption of the natural sleep cycle can significantly increase the risk of substance use, by interfering with brain functions that regulate the experience of reward, emotions, and impulsivity. This is borne out by statistics from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse showing that high school students who get less than eight hours of sleep per night are significantly more likely than those who sleep eight hours or more to use alcohol (46 percent vs. 34 percent), to smoke marijuana (23 percent vs. 17 percent), and to be lifetime users of illegal drugs (16 percent vs. 11 percent).

In an attempt to work with teens’ “late to bed, late to rise” schedules, a few school districts have experimented with pushing start times later, with definite improvement in many of these areas. Since that’s not the norm, however, parents should consider implementing guidelines to help their teens sleep better and longer. Here are a few ways to do that:

• Encourage physical activity during the day. Get the kids outside for a hike, and support their involvement in team sports, running, dancing, or whatever form of exercise they’re naturally drawn toward.
• Make time for naps. Twenty minutes of shuteye after school or before dinner can give your teen enough energy for homework and evening activities; just make sure the nap doesn’t go so late or long that it interferes with their sleep at night.
• Set an electronic curfew. Teens’ use of technology often interferes with getting enough sleep. Turning off their computers and cellphones at a fixed time each night will help their brains wind down and get ready for sleep.
• Create a bedtime routine. Teens can do relaxing activities before bed instead of using technology, such as reading, taking a shower, listening to quiet music, or meditating.
• Get them up at the usual time on weekend mornings. Sleeping till noon and then staying up late will throw off their schedule for the rest of the week.
• Make sure their bedroom is dark enough. Light can interfere with the sleep cycle. Use blackout curtains to make sure daylight is not disturbing their sleep. All lights in the room should be off when the teen is sleeping.
• Keep the bedroom cool. The body prepares for sleep by lowering its internal temperature, and a cool room can encourage that process.

Jamison Monroe Jr., a social activist and adolescent mental health expert, is the Founder and CEO of Newport Academy, a holistic treatment program celebrated as the most comprehensive in the US in the mental-health field. He works to actively reduce social stigma around teen mental-health and substance use challenges. Monroe is a regular contributor to CNN, FOX, ABC, Psychology Today, and other major networks and publications, and has given talks at TedEx and the Aspen Ideas Festival, among other conferences.


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