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Teens who lack sleep at greater risk for depression, suicide, warns Mason researcher

By Cathy Cruise, MFA '93 on November 21, 2016


George Mason University psychology professor Adam Winsler is an expert on kids and their development, especially how language, ethnicity, poverty, and other factors play a role. Not long ago, he turned his eye toward the importance of sleep, and how a lack of it can deeply affect teenagers’ mental health.

Winsler and his students, along with collaborators from Old Dominion University and Eastern Virginia Medical School, gathered data from the Fairfax County Youth Survey. This assessment given to all Fairfax County students in grades 8, 10, and 12 examines behaviors, experiences and other factors impacting children’s health and well-being. The team focused on sleep times reported by an ethnically diverse sample of 27,939 middle- and high-school students. And the numbers were troubling.

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While the National Institutes of Health recommends teenagers get around nine hours of sleep a night, only 3 percent of Fairfax County students reported getting that much sleep, and 20 percent said they got five hours or less of sleep per weeknight. On average, respondents reported getting only six-and-a-half hours of sleep each weekday night.

The consequences of skipping sleep can be dire. Accounting for variables such as family composition and income, gender, and ethnic and community-level differences, Winsler determined each hour of sleep lost was associated with a 38-percent increase in feelings of sadness and hopelessness among teens, a 23-percent increase in substance abuse, a 42-percent increase in suicidal thoughts, and a 58-percent increase in actual suicide attempts.

But does a sleep deficit cause depression, or does persistent sadness cause sleep disturbances? While Winsler said his correlational data do not firmly provide an answer, he says prior research leads him to conclude that it goes both ways, but there’s a stronger correlation showing that a sleep deficit can cause depression.

Many U.S. high schools have tried to help by implementing later school start times. Skeptics may believe kids simply stay up later when start times are delayed, Winsler says, but it turns out that isn’t true.

“Communities that have done this find teens get more sleep, do better in school, reduce driving accidents, and all kinds of good things happen.”

Fairfax recently became one of those communities, moving back its high school start times by 40 minutes this year. A full hour would have been better, Winsler said, as his research shows just one hour more of sleep can bring about noticeable changes in depression outcomes. Still, it’s a step in the right direction, and one Winsler wishes his own children, who were Fairfax County students, could have benefited from.

“It’s a personal interest of mine,” Winsler says. “I have two teenagers, one of whom was part of the 40 percent or so who have a hard time with early morning waking. His whole high school experience was terrible, largely because of that early start time.”

To help kids get more sleep, he recommends:

  • A regular bedtime routine.
  • Reduced screen time before bed.
  • Phones off at night (since even vibrations can wake kids up).
  • Limited caffeine consumption.
  • Soothing bedtime activities, such as reading (but not on a screen) or listening to music.

And for teens who are really struggling, a wake-up light, which brightens a room gradually in the mornings to mimic sunrise, could help.

Winsler published his findings in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence.


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