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Business psychology services

Mental health services saw more children and young people in 2021 than in 2019, yet there are still considerable waiting lists. Professional psychotherapy or counselling can realign thoughts and behaviours, but could something as simple as sleep make a difference?

The Prevalence of Poor Mental Health in Young People

The Health Foundation* has collated data relating to young people’s mental health. It reports that in July 2021, one in six 5-16-year-olds was identified as having a probable mental health issue. For 17-19-year-old girls, the figure was 24.8%.

The isolation, disruption and uncertainty resulting from the Covid 19 pandemic were certainly some of the factors impacting this decline in well-being. Other factors, including 24/7 digital connectivity, have also been linked to poor mental health.

With professional support services overstretched, are there ways in which parents or the teenagers themselves can be empowered to take action to turn things around? One idea being explored is helping teenagers to get more sleep.

The Connection Between Sleep & Health

In a society where not being constantly busy is viewed as a sign of weakness, sleep can be portrayed as a waste of time. Why lie around when you could be far more productive?

The reality is that our physical and mental well-being is dependent on opportunities to rest and rejuvenate. Whilst we go through the stages of sleep, our body is not idle; it is recovering and rebalancing. From processing thoughts to hormone regulation, we need sleep to operate.

Sleep studies consistently show that adults need 7-9 hours of sleep to maintain optimum physical and mental performance. We can function on less, but becoming sleep-deprived lowers concentration and energy levels, immunity and mood.

As teenagers’ bodies and minds are still developing, they need 8 – 10 hours of sleep a night. Lower levels impact cognitive ability, academic performance, energy levels, mood and well-being.

In 2019, research** conducted by Dr Natalie Pearson of Loughborough University revealed that the majority of British teenagers do not meet the recommended guidelines for sleep (8+ hours), physical activity (1 hour) and screen-time (2 hours).

The Spiral Effect

When lacking energy and motivation due to sleep deprivation, it becomes harder to do the things that aid sleep. Instead of exercising in the fresh air to reboot energy levels, teenagers might opt for a high caffeine energy drink. If they struggle to drop off, they are more likely to check social online accounts than read or use relaxation techniques. This compounds the problem and reduces the time needed to prepare for optimum physical and mental performance.

Is Sleep Deprivation Linked to Obesity?

A decline in mental well-being isn’t the only factor affected by a lack of sleep. In a 2006 study by S Taheri*** the link between sleep deprivation and obesity was explored. It found that without sufficient time to rebalance energy levels during sleep, individuals were less likely to partake in physical activity.

Similar findings were reported in The Helena Study 2011. The findings showed a link between shorter sleep patterns and the likelihood of teenagers being overweight. It suggests that disruption to hormonal regulation (particularly hunger hormones, ghrelin and leptin) increased calorie intake. Lack of sleep was a cause of this disruption.

As becoming overweight can also lower physical and mental well-being, the negative spiral continues.

Could Smart Phones Reduce Sleep Problems?

One of the strategies for improving sleep is to switch off devices in advance of bedtime to calm the mind. However, despite the negative connection between smartphone use and sleep deprivation, some are wondering if it could be a force for good.

Researchers at the University of Bristol are exploring whether their Sleep Tracker app can reduce sleep problems. At present, the app can detect when insomnia symptoms start. The STTAMP team want to evidence whether this can be combined with self-administered treatments to help individuals turn things around.

The STTAMP team are inviting colleges and students to sign up to be involved in their sleep and mental well-being study commencing on February 2023. If early detection and action can prevent poor sleep from becoming a habit, it could be a powerful, non-medical way of improving mental well-being.

The Importance of Sleep in Summary

Rather than a waste of time, optimum sleep is essential for physical and mental performance. Sleep allows the body to self-regulate. As many young people are getting less than the recommended hours of sleep, their minds and bodies have insufficient time to get back in balance. An effective, non-medical way to improve well-being is simply to schedule more time for sleep.


** https://www.lboro.ac.uk/news-events/news/2019/august/screen-time-physical-activity-sleep-teenager-study/

*** https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2082964/?_escaped_fragment_=po=41.6667

**** https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21792170/

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