Is sleep deprivation causing teenage depression?

By Tracy Brighten

New research reveals a strong link between sleep deprivation and depression in adolescents that could guide better prevention and treatment

Girl on phone late night

In a new study published in the journal Sleep, 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.

Sleep deprivation increases depression risk threefold

Allowing for those depressed at the outset, researchers in the Sleep study 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.

This study is the first to consider any link between sleep deprivation and the risk for major depression in adolescents.

“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.

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 interviewed again, and data collected on sleep and depression symptoms.

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 suggested that future adolescent sleep studies consider a longer observation period than 4 weeks to compare risk factors of short and long term sleep deprivation.

To reduce the incidence of depression, Roberts recommends that questions on sleep duration and disturbance form part of an adolescent’s medical history to ascertain risk. Adequate sleep could help teenagers by preventing depression, by reducing the need for medication, or by improving the success of psychological treatments.

Trend in sleep deprivation

Researchers at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health confirm the trend in teenage sleep deprivation. Published online in Pediatrics, the study looked at changes in sleep duration among U.S adolescents from 1991-2012. Although the National Sleep Foundation recommends 8-10 hours for 14-17 year olds, researchers found a shortfall. Notably, teenagers were less likely to report sleeping 7 hours or more if they fell into any of the following groups: 15 years old, female, racial minority or low socio-economic status.

Owl types at greater risk of depression

University of Adelaide School of Psychology researcher Pasquale Alvaro confirms the association between sleep deprivation and depression in adolescents, finding that insomnia is independently linked with depression. In his study of high school students, published in Sleep Medicine, he also researched chronotype as a risk factor for insomnia and depression. Chronotype refers to a person’s most active time of day.

Alvaro found that being more active in the evenings, or eveningness, is a risk factor for adolescent depression. He suggests the importance of considering chronotype in treatment programs, especially as this sleep-delaying behaviour can become habitual.

Sleep deprivation affects emotional response to stressors

Sleep deprivation is also connected to the likelihood of reacting emotionally to a stressful situation, reported in the book, Sleep and Affect: Assessment, Theory and Clinical Implications, co-edited by Matthew Feldner, a professor of psychology at the University of Arkansas, and Kimberly Babson, a health science specialist at the National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in California.

“What we call ‘stressors’ tend to be more emotionally arousing for people who haven’t slept well, and emotional arousal also appears to interfere with sleep quality,” says Feldner. The book explains the interplay between poor sleep, emotional responses, and mental health.

The clinical experience of Nicole McCance, Harvard-educated psychotherapist now based in Toronto, supports this emotion-sleep interplay. McCance is seeing an increasing number of teens suffering from sleep deprivation, and blames social media, reports The Globe and Mail.

“You’re the unpopular one if you end the chat online to go to bed,” says McCance, author of 52 Ways to Beat Depression Naturally. Her teen clients fear missing out and stay up late, but with school next morning, lack of sleep impacts their wellbeing.

“Sleep deprivation causes negative thinking. And it’s hard for teens to get out of it, because their body is so tired,“ says McCance. Parents often see teenage irritability as hormonal rather than a risk factor, or symptom, of depression.

McCance focuses on natural ways to restore the body’s balance before considering pharmaceutical options, and recommends that parents create an environment conducive to sleep and help to regulate their teens’ sleep-wake cycle.

Adolescent depression a global epidemic

Almost 1 million people worldwide take their own life each year, and at least 350 million people live with depression, the main cause of disability, according to the World Health Organisation (2012). Most people don’t receive the support and care they need, either from lack of awareness, lack of access to treatment, or because stigma compels silence, especially during the teenage years of identity formation.

Teenage depression is a global issue that transcends gender, race and socio economic groups.

An estimated one in seven New Zealanders will experience a major depressive disorder before they reach 24. In the U.K, around 1.4 per cent of 11- to 16-year-olds – that’s 62,000 – are estimated to be seriously depressed, according to charity Young Minds, and in the U.S, 8.3 per cent of teens suffer depression for at least a year at a time, compared to around 5.3 per cent of the general population, says Teen Help.

Regardless of whether lack of sleep is the trigger, in cases of mild or moderate depression, treatment that considers sleep duration and quality may prove more effective than anti-depressant medication, which can have side effects, including insomnia and fatigue.

“Healthy sleep is a necessity for physical, mental and emotional well-being,” says Dr Safwan Badr, President of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

Counselling Directory  provides comprehensive advice on mental health and an extensive support network of counsellors, enabling visitors to find a counsellor close to them and appropriate for their needs.

Also published on The News Hub July 15, 2015

Image Credit: Girl on phone late at night at Pixabay


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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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