Just One More Hour: How Sleep Affects Teen Mental Health

Mar 11, 2022

Can one hour of sleep make all the difference in your teen’s mental health? 

Teenagers today are getting less sleep than ever before. Coupled with the increase in screen time and addiction to technology, many teens have an unbalanced sleep schedule. They get little sleep during school nights. Then, they attempt to relieve that with oversleeping on the weekends. This chronic, teenage sleep deprivation is now termed “social jet lag.”  

Consequently, lack of sleep is proving to be dangerous to teens’ mental and physical health. On the physical side, lack of sleep leads to a multitude of health problems.

Higher rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure are a few that make the cut. On the mental side, lack of sleep leads to higher rates of depression, suicide, and substance abuse. 

Let’s take a closer look at how sleep affects teen mental health, and the steps to take so everyone in the family stays well-rested.  

Sleep and Mental Health

Depression and suicide are tragic and preventable issues for teenagers. Research shows that the quantity and quality of sleep a teenager gets are associated with mental health concerns. For reference, data shows that 72.7% of high school students do not get enough sleep on weeknights.

The typical focus is that lack of sleep might make your teen moody or pay less attention in school. The link between how sleep affects teen mental health, however, may be far greater than simply affecting mood or attention span.

A study featured in the Springer Journal of Youth and Adolescence examined weekday reported sleep duration in teenagers and its relation to mental health. It was performed in a suburban area with an ethnically diverse focus group. Also, the study was carried out specifically in communities that had very early high school start times (7:20 am).

Overall, most high schoolers in the group reported getting on average 6.5 hours of sleep. 20% of the group reported getting less than 5 hours on weeknights.

The results showed a directional relationship between sleep duration and teenage mental health concerns. Furthermore, the results accordingly match with results from previous studies done across the country. 

Specifically, less sleep was associated with greater feelings of hopelessness, sadness, and consideration of suicide. For each less hour of sleep reported, negative feelings increased by a significant amount. 

The odds of teenagers feeling sad and hopeless increased 38% with each hour decreased. 

A smaller group of students reported getting more sleep than the recommended time, 10 hours or more. This group who received too much sleep also had an increased risk in all three categories of hopelessness, sadness, and suicide. Whether it’s too little or too much, both sleep situations put teens at higher risks.

Sleep and Suicide

Moreover, the patterns between sleep deprivation and suicide were very similar to the increased rates of hopelessness. For teenagers who got the recommended amount of sleep, 8.1% reported considering suicide and 1.8% attempted suicide. When the amount of sleep decreased to only 4 hours a night, the figures for suicide consideration increased to 31.5%. The percentage of teenagers who attempted suicide increased to 13.3%.

In this study, sleep affects teen mental health bidirectionally. This means that sleep can affect teen mental health, but also that mental health can affect your teen’s sleep. It’s important to use sleep habits and sleep duration as a way to spot possible suicide risks in depressed teens.  

For each less hour that teenagers sleep, the chances of seriously considering suicide increased by 21%.

Sleep and Substance Abuse

Similarly, lack of weekday sleep was also associated with increased levels of alcohol use and substance abuse in teenagers. Sleep deprivation is known to damage prefrontal cortical functioning.

This means that lack of sleep affects the area of our brain that controls impulsive responses. It also affects the area that controls attention and reasoning. Moreover, sleep deprivation affects the area of the brain that contributes to anticipation, planning, and goal setting.

For teenagers, the negative effects of sleep deprivation on this specific area of the brain lead to higher risk-taking and poor judgment control. 

This leads to increased use of alcohol and substances and also the earlier onset of such use. Teenagers who don’t get enough sleep, or even those who receive one less hour, have higher rates of using alcohol and drugs at younger ages. 

Steps to Take

1

Talk to your teen

Much of improving your teenager’s life starts with building a trusting, open relationship with them. Assure your teen that they can talk to you about anything, and tell them how sleep affects teen mental health. Make sure they understand the consequences of getting too little or too much sleep. Help them gain insight into how mental and physical health can affect their happiness in both the present and future.

Ask questions like:

  • Are you going through anything that is keeping you up at night?
  • How do you feel about your class schedule? 
  • At what time of the day do you feel the most tired or lose focus?
  • Do you know what happens to your body when you get less sleep?

2

Encourage healthy sleep habits

Encouraging healthy sleep habits and implementing a daily routine will help your teenager keep their sleep schedule on track. Both parents and teenagers can benefit from this.

  • Eat a healthy diet. Stick to whole foods and vegetables while avoiding highly processed foods.
  • Avoid sugar, snacking, and binge eating at night. The increased amount of food and sugar keeps the brain and body running on overtime during sleep hours.
  • Avoid caffeine in the afternoon. Six hours after a person consumes caffeine, half of it is still in their body. Instead of letting your teen down that afternoon frappuccino, have them go for a fresh juice or bottle of water.
  • Create a sleep-friendly bedroom. Clean sheets and a clean room make for a peaceful night’s sleep. Encourage your teen to shower and tidy up their room before bed.
  • Limit screen time before bedtime. Television, cell phones, laptops, and video games should be shut off an hour before bedtime. Have your teen do an activity before bed that allows them to wind down without technology.

Here are some relaxing, non-tech activities:

  • Listening to music
  • Reading a book
  • Drawing or painting
  • Playing an instrument
  • Journaling or writing
  • Taking a bath or shower

3

Get the whole family on board

Lastly, motivate all family members to join in. This way, your teen won’t feel singled out from everyone else. Your teen is more likely to stick with a bedtime routine if everyone is doing the same and implements the same healthy habits.

Teach the family how to manage their time better so they can have more time to rest at night. Have family meetings that check in with everyone’s happiness levels, sleep levels, and mental states. Keep the same rules and schedule for all your children.

Tip: Have the whole family go on a daily walk after dinner to encourage winding down without technology and screen time.

Conclusion

Only one more hour of sleep can make a huge difference in your teenager’s mental health.

Sleep deprivation in teenagers can lead to:

  • Increased feelings of hopelessness and sadness
  • Increased rates of alcohol and drug use
  • Higher rates of suicide consideration and attempts
  • Physical health issues (obesity, diabetes, heart disease)
  • Decreased function in planning, goal setting, and attention span
  • Decreased school performance

Most importantly, depression and suicide in teenagers are preventable and can be treated. 

The next time your teen wakes up on the wrong side of the bed, don’t get frustrated with their bad attitude. Talk with them about how they’re feeling, and discover how much quality sleep they are getting.

You might be surprised with what just one more hour can do.   

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