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How Does Lack of Sleep Affect the Mental Health of Teens?

how does lack of sleep affect your mental state

Most of us recognize the importance of good sleep. Sleep promotes better energy levels, physical health, cognitive skills, and mental well-being. But what exactly constitutes “good” sleep? And what happens when we don’t get the right amount?

For teenagers between the ages of 13 and 18, the “right” amount of sleep is around 8 to 10 hours per night. For younger children, the recommendation is between 9 and 12 hours during a 24-hour period.

However, these sleep goals are unrealistic for many American teenagers. According to research from the CDC, more than 70 percent of U.S. teenagers are not getting enough sleep during the week. And, as a result, too many teens are feeling the effects.

Sleep deprivation can lead to reduced function of the brain. Combined with the fact that teenagers’ brains are not fully developed (this does not happen until around age 25), sleep deprivation can take a major toll on teens’ ability to function and make decisions. Without an adequate amount of sleep, teens have a hard time focusing and retaining information. They are more likely to have accidents and, in turn, get hurt or hurt others. Sleep-deprived teenagers also are more aggravated and likely to experience sudden shifts in mood. As Lisa Damour, a clinical psychologist and author of “The Emotional Lives of Teenagers” explains simply, when teenagers lack sleep, “They like themselves less. They like other people less.”

She continues, “The bottom line on this is that if we could bottle what sleep does for teenagers and truly for all of us, this would be the most valuable drug on the market.”

Sleep is that important. So, why are teenagers not getting enough of it?

Top Reasons Why Teens Lack Sleep

Sleep deprivation is an increasing trend among teenagers, much more than in years’ past. And many people believe this has to do with our growing use of technology. The fact that almost every teenager today owns a smartphone or laptop—and has access to that device all night—means that their exposure to blue light is near-constant. In fact, half of teenagers admit they are online “constantly.” This, we know, is contributing to longer wake windows among adolescents today. However, it’s not the only reason.

One of the primary reasons that teenagers get less sleep actually has to do with their biological clock. When children enter adolescence, they experience significant changes in their circadian rhythm and their hormones. Specifically, their body releases melatonin (the sleepy hormone) about two hours later than it did previously, pushing out their bedtimes, and their need to sleep in, much later. However, because of early morning school starts, and overscheduling throughout the day, many teenagers do not end up getting the sleep their bodies really need.

On top of the biological reasons for teens’ lack of sleep, modern teenagers simply tend to have a lot going on. Between the long school hours, working after school, homework, and extracurricular activities, many teenagers need to stay up late to complete assignments or simply get personal time in. In a recent PBS article, multiple teens were interviewed about their sleep struggles. One 15-year-old, Keiko Rakin, is an example of how overscheduling can affect her ability to sleep:

“I have homework due every night. I usually have two tests a week. I’m in sports and, that’s every day after school for two hours. I’m in five clubs. And… I have leadership positions in all of them. And I can get overwhelmed. You know, I can cry. I have a hard time breathing. And it’s just me thinking, I have so much to do and I just don’t have the time to do it.”

Keiko goes to bed around 1am, and wakes around 6 or 7am for school. She says she is constantly fighting sleep in class, and yawning throughout the day.

Keiko is also an example of what affects thousands of other teenagers: She struggles with her mental health. At just 15-years-old, she faces symptoms of anxiety and feels immense pressure to take everything on herself. Like many teens, these anxieties keep her up at night. Mental health struggles are another common reason that teens lack sleep, especially amidst a youth mental health crisis.

And while mental health concerns can keep teens up at night, a general lack of sleep can also lead to mental health problems like depression or anxiety.

Can a Lack of Sleep Cause Mental Health Problems?

“It’s a chicken-or-egg problem,” explains Adriana Galvin, a neuroscientist at UCLA who is studying the link between sleep and teens’ mental health. She wonders, “Is it that the mental health concerns or issues cause poor sleep, or is it the other way around? And they’re related. It almost doesn’t really matter… We know that people who suffer from anxiety or depression, which are the most common mental health challenges that adolescents may undergo, are associated with poorer sleep.”

Sleepfoundation.org echoes this sentiment, stating, “It is becoming clear that there is a bidirectional relationship between sleep and mental health in which sleeping problems may be both a cause and consequence of mental health problems.”  

Statistics show that students who sleep less than six hours a night are three times more likely to consider or attempt suicide, compared to students who sleep eight hours. Another study, published in Journal of Youth and Adolescence, found that losing even one hour of sleep led teens to experience more feelings of depression, suicidal ideation, and substance abuse. 

And teenagers across the United States are experiencing feelings just like this.

According to the latest CDC data available, an estimated 42 percent of high school students currently have persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness, interfering with their ability to carry out regular activities. At the same time, more than 1 in 5 teenagers have seriously considered attempting suicide. 

Without a doubt, the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the rise in mental health problems among teenagers. However, mental health issues in adolescents were on the rise much before the pandemic began. In 2019, more than one-third of teenagers reported the same, persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness—a massive, 40 percent increase from 2009. 

Find more research about sleep deprivation here.

The question remains, however, is it teenagers’ mental health problems keeping them up at night? Or is it their lack of sleep that’s causing an increase in mental health conditions?

As Galvin said previously, the answer doesn’t really matter. The fact is that teen mental health problems are prominent – and as parents, educators, treatment professionals, and loved ones, we must find ways to help our teenagers succeed. One way is to encourage good sleeping habits.

What Parents Can Do to Support Their Teens

When it comes to promoting good sleep in your household, there are a couple of key steps the CDC recommends. One is limiting teens’ use of technology at night. Implementing “media curfews” and prohibiting screens in teens’ bedrooms can help encourage them to go to sleep a bit earlier.

More importantly, the CDC recommends setting a consistent sleep schedule and routine. This means encouraging your teenager to go to bed at the same time each night, and wake up at the same time each morning (even on the weekends). 

While these tactics might promote better sleep for your teenager, and in turn lead to better mental health outcomes, parents should also be aware of the rising reality of mental health problems in young people today. Anyone can become affected by mental illness, and issues with depression and anxiety are most prominent among adolescents and young adults. Your son or daughter could be struggling, too.

When a teenager is struggling with their mental health, the best thing parents can do is to listen to them and validate their feelings. Too often, parents do not expect their teens (perhaps because they are young) to face issues with mental illness, and as a result, these teenagers are left feeling unseen or unheard. By validating your teen’s concerns, and encouraging self-care and mental health conversations in your home, you will be better able to support your teenager through times of need.

If you have any concerns about your teenager facing a mental health problem, consider having a support line readily available. Therapy and treatment can be pivotal in the success of teenagers today. Turnbridge is a recognized mental health treatment center for teenagers and young adults. We are just one call away. Contact us at 877-581-1793 to learn about our programs for young women and young men.