Meg Smith, MSW, LICSW, ACSW
Workforce Development Coordinator, Center for Trauma Care in Schools
Signs of declining adolescent mental health indicators have been piling up for over a decade, but the COVID pandemic has brought new attention and concerning evidence to this building crisis. Recent surveys find more than 1 in 3 high schoolers reporting persistent sadness or hopelessness. Roughly 1 in 5 reports having seriously considered suicide. For both parents and those working with young people, the data is alarming. And recent research suggests that one contributing factor, the lack of consistent and uninterrupted sleep, may be exacerbating this trend among youth. In the context of so many things over which parents and teens themselves do not have control, the idea that improving sleep patterns can materially improve teen mental health is itself a welcome breath of fresh air.
In an article in the Washington Post, Heather Turgeon and Julie Wright report that a typical, average adolescent sleeps 6.5 hours per night when they really need nine hours; and 1 in 5 teens sleeps five or fewer hours. The lack of significant sleep per night has been shown to contribute to depression and increased thoughts of self-harming. Brain imaging scans have even shown that “sleep deprivation amps up the reactive, negative emotional centers while the pre-frontal cortex which gives us emotional regulation-is less active.”
We know that school-start hours, homework expectations, and school transportation struggles, all contribute to lack of sleep. And perhaps most important, the elephant-in-the-room issue for parents, guardians, teachers and students is unlimited access to smartphones and enticing 24/7 apps that are so often the cause dysregulated or just plain too little sleep. This is not only true for teens, but also, alas, for much younger children, too.
So, what can we do to help kids increase and improve their sleep? As parents, teachers and community members, as well as all-too-tired teens, we can address this mental health crisis, at least in part, by advocating for and enforcing expectations around better sleep health. The Washington Post piece encourages parents and educators to advocate for reasonable school start and end times, reasonable and realistic homework expectations, and extracurricular activity schedules that allow students to get the right amount of sleep and awake at times appropriate for age differences in sleep cycles. And as adults and parents, we need to model putting phones away before bedtime, train our kids to use pre-bedtime calming practices such as deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation to get settled for sleep. And anything parents can do around restricting access to phones or other internet devices when kids should be asleep could only be for the good, but admittedly not always easy to do. On the other hand, nothing about raising adolescents is easy, so we may as well start with ways to improve sleep health to promote their mental health. It may just be the lowest hanging fruit of the teen mental health crisis.