Sleep Significantly Impacts Adolescent Mental Health
As we wrap up Mental Health Awareness Month, we want to focus on one of the most overlooked influencers of mental health: sleep. There are many studies that connect sleep loss with poor mental health. It is not a coincidence that today’s teens are the most sleep-deprived generation in history and that adolescent mental health is also at its worst point.
More than 1 in 3 high-schoolers say they’ve felt persistent sadness or hopelessness, and roughly 1 in 5 reports having seriously considered suicide. There are MANY reasons for this trend, and mental health is definitely complicated and cannot be solved with just one thing. But one culprit that could be having a profound impact on a teen’s mental health that many parents don’t consider is sleep deprivation. Only about 15% of high school students get healthy sleep. The average high-schooler sleeps 6½ hours a night, when they optimally need nine; and 1 in 5 teens sleeps five or fewer hours a night. Adolescents who sleep fewer than eight hours a night are more likely to report symptoms of depression. One analysis found that teens getting six to seven hours of sleep a night were 17% more likely to think about hurting themselves than those sleeping eight; and sleeping five hours a night made them 81% more likely to consider self-harm. Many of us forget that the adolescent brain is still changing and growing as much as younger children, and scientists have proven that the most important brain restructuring occurs during sleep.
There are many reasons that teens aren’t getting enough sleep. Too early school start times coupled with large amounts of homework and extracurricular activities significantly disrupt sleep. Social media is another enemy to sleep, keeping teens engaged late into the night. However, all that said, there are ways that families can improve a teen’s sleep right away.
Talk to your teen. Discuss the importance of sleep. Your teen may be more motivated to go to bed early if he or she understands the benefits of sleep and how it impacts their mental and physical health.
Role model. Parents often underestimate their influence, but what they say and do matters. Start by modeling good habits. As a family, set clear devices-off hours and reasonable bedtimes.
Set a bedtime. Decide on a bed time for school nights with your teen. An ideal bedtime would allow your teen to get about nine hours of sleep each night, but at least eight hours. In a study of more than 15,000 middle- and high-schoolers, those with bedtimes of 10 p.m. or earlier were 24% less likely to suffer from depression and 20% less likely to have suicidal ideation than those with bedtimes of midnight or later.
Set a device curfew. Set a time after which your teen can no longer talk on the phone, watch TV, engage on social media, play on the computer, or send text messages, instant messages or e-mails. The best way to enforce this curfew is to have a time when all devices must be placed in a charging location outside of your teen’s bedroom. Usually removing all devices 30 minutes before bedtime will work.
Encourage consistency. Encourage your teen to go to bed and wake up at reasonable times on weekends. Sleeping into the afternoon on a Saturday will make it hard for your teen to return to a school-week schedule on Monday.
Let in morning light. Open the blinds or curtains in the morning to expose your teen to bright sunlight. This helps set their body clock for the day. Your teen will be able to fall asleep easier that night.
Help your teen plan ahead. Your teen may be a procrastinator. This can cause them to stay up much too late to get a lot of schoolwork done at once. Help your teen learn how to prioritize school assignments and to do some work ahead of time to help eliminate late nights.
Create a consistent pre-bed routine to help with relaxation and falling asleep fast. This might include gentle stretching, deep breathing, listening to a sleep story, meditating, or reading a book.
Avoid caffeine and energy drinks in the afternoon and evening.
Make the sleeping environment comfortable. Your teen’s mattress and pillows should be supportive. Their bedroom should be dark and quiet at night. The temperature should be cool.
Limit after-school activities. Your teen can’t do it all. Help them set a reasonable limit on after-school activities. Not only will this save them time for sleep, but it will also reduce stress, which can disrupt sleep.
Limit weeknight chores. Let your teen focus on schoolwork during the week. Wherever possible, allow your teen to do household chores on the weekend.
Prepare for the next school day. Help your teen prepare at night for the next day of school. You can make lunch while they pick out clothes and gather school supplies. This will allow a little more time for sleep in the morning. Added bonus that the mornings will feel less chaotic!
The adolescent mental health crisis is real, and teens are struggling for a host of valid reasons. Sleep may not be the cause of a teen’s depression, anxiety, or other mental health problem. But science shows that for many teens, their outlooks will brighten and their stress will subside if they win back precious hours of slumber. Sleep should be a priority in every family.