Depression in adolescents: is lack of sleep the problem?

By Tracy Brighten April, 2014

New research published in the journal Sleep suggests a strong link between sleep deprivation and depression in adolescents that could help young people in New Zealand. 

U.S researchers found that up to 25% of adolescents slept for 6 hours or less per night and were classed as sleep deprived. With early school times, weekend jobs and social media, it’s no surprise that adolescents don’t get enough sleep, putting them at risk of major depression.

Allowing for those depressed at the outset, researchers found the risk of major depression to be three times greater for adolescents sleeping less than 6 hours than for those having the recommended 9 hours. They also found the risk of depressive symptoms to be greater for adolescents with short sleep, although this risk was less significant than for major depression.

“These results are important because they suggest that sleep deprivation may be a precursor for major depression in adolescents, occurring before other symptoms,” said lead researcher Dr Robert E. Roberts, Professor of Behavioural Sciences at Texas University School of Public Health.

According to website Depression.org.nz, one in seven young New Zealanders will experience a major depressive disorder before they reach 24. New Zealand has a high teen suicide rate and depression is the most common risk factor. Dr Safwan Badr, President of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, warns, “Healthy sleep is a necessity for physical, mental and emotional well-being.”

Previous studies have looked at the link between insomnia and depressive symptoms, as well as the link between insomnia and major depression, especially among adults.

This Sleep study is the first to consider any link between sleep deprivation and the risk for major depression in adolescents. Researchers also examine whether depression, in turn, affects sleep duration.

Researchers examined sleep duration of 4,175 youths, aged between 11 and 17 years, on weekday and weekend nights using data recorded over a four week period. A year later, 3,134 of these participants were followed up.

Data was collected by trained individuals who interviewed participants and completed recognised sleep questionnaires and assessments for depression.

The study also found that major depression increases the risk of short sleep, but only on weeknights, possibly explained by the inability to function normally, as well as lifestyle factors.

Other studies have found reasons for sleep deprivation to include late night jobs and early school start times, which affect the sleep-wake schedule and hours available for sleep.

Dr Roberts and co-author Dr Duong suggest that future studies consider a longer observation period than 4 weeks to compare risk factors of short and long term sleep deprivation. Data that relies on participants’ memory has limitations, so physiological data would be beneficial.

To reduce the incidence of depression, Roberts advocates, “Questions on sleep disturbance and hours of sleep should be part of the medical history of adolescents to ascertain risk.” Adequate sleep could help teenagers either by preventing depression, by reducing the need for medication, or by improving the success of psychological treatments.

Considering our cultural and lifestyle similarities to the US, the findings of this study could help to tackle major depression in New Zealand’s young people.

Journal Reference

Roberts, R. E., Duong, H.T. (2014). The Prospective Association between Sleep Deprivation and Depression among Adolescents. Sleep, 37(2), 239-244.


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About Tracy Brighten

With her passion for nature, health and sustainability, Tracy writes creative content that connects with readers. She helps tell people's stories, build brands and grow businesses. Thrives on words, birds and enthusiasm. For hire at www.tracybrightenwriter.com.

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