Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Teens, Sleep, and Mental Health

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about night owls and heard from many of you who join me in savoring the quiet of those dark hours when others are sleeping.

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But if staying up late means not getting enough sleep, it can spell trouble for our mental health. This is especially the case for teens.

1. How much sleep do teens need? Eight to 10 hours of sleep per night is the standard recommendation from expert sources such as the National Sleep Foundation and the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. It is worrisome that fewer than one in four high school students in the US are getting even the minimum number of recommended hours, according to the results of the most recent CDC Youth Risk Behavior Survey. It is likely not coincidental that teens are reporting both pervasive sleep deficiency and elevated rates of mood and anxiety disorders today. 

2. Not too much, not too little. A study of adolescents that examined how sleep is associated with academic achievement and mental health found that teens who got 8¾ to nine hours of sleep per night had the least mental health issues, from moodiness and feelings of worthlessness to anxiety and depression. Both too little and too much sleep were associated with elevated levels of daily distress and worse mood. Highly variable sleep schedules can also be problematic. Research indicates that university students with the most erratic sleep schedules reported being unhappy nearly twice as often as those who had consistent and sufficient sleep. 

3. Sleep affects mood and anxiety. Mood and anxiety affect sleep. It is essential to recognize that insufficient sleep can contribute to as well as be a symptom of mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. Nearly all mood and anxiety disorders co-occur with significant sleep abnormalities and vice versa. Improving sleep can help alleviate mental health symptoms, and conversely, treating depression or anxiety can lead to better sleep.

4. Sleep and coping with stress. A good night’s sleep can significantly impact a teen’s stress levels and coping capacity. Sleep provides an emotional reset and helps teens rebound in terms of mood and resilience following stressful days. Study findings indicate that capping off a stressful day with suboptimal sleep can prolong the agony, so to speak, as the negative impact of the stress is more likely to carry over to the next day. This “spillover” effect becomes more pronounced as the amount of sleep decreases. On the flip side, If a teen gets a good night’s sleep following a stressful day, they are more likely to have an overall positive mood the following day. This “bounce-back” effect helps teens reset their mood to baseline levels typical of low-stress days.

5. Helping teens get enough sleep. For teens, good sleep hygiene includes a consistent schedule, bright light in the morning, only being in bed when sleeping, and setting boundaries with electronic devices. With 80% of teens reporting regular coffee consumption, managing coffee intake is also essential. According to neuroscientist Matthew Walker in “Why We Sleep,” caffeine has a half-life of about five to seven hours, which means that half of the caffeine from an afternoon coffee will still be in your system at bedtime. And, of course, exercise has direct positive benefits on sleep and mental health. Consistent routines, exercise, and getting adequate hours of sleep can be challenging, especially for teens who may have to juggle working part-time while going to school or for teens who are fulfilling caretaker roles in their families. Policies that may seem far removed from teen sleep – such as those that promote financial stability for families – can have far reaching impact on teen mental health, and part of that is getting a good night’s sleep.

I write this Five on Friday at what some would call an ungodly hour. For me, it is divine. For ourselves and our teens, knowing whether we are night owls or early birds and developing the appropriate habits that ensure we get the sleep we need will go a long way towards caring for our mental health. Good night. Good morning. Good sleep.

Picture of Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University.

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