Could Sleep Help End the Youth Mental Health Crisis?

The solution to our youth mental health crisis is here

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As I reviewed the jaw-dropping results of a sleep challenge survey I recently conducted with middle and high school students, one possible solution to our current youth mental health crisis hit me square in the face.

Of the 885 students surveyed, 97 percent of them reported getting less than the 9-hour recommended minimum of sleep per night. Considering it usually takes at least 10 hours of sleep opportunity to get 9 hours of sleep, 100 percent is arguably more accurate.

Sleep Deprivation: The Epidemic Behind the Crisis

Many parents I have spoken with say that 10 or even nine hours of sleep opportunity is an unreasonable expectation based on the schedule most secondary students have. Many say that eight hours of sleep opportunity is more realistic.

Unfortunately, the data suggest a much bigger problem. Nearly 60 percent of students reported sleeping around six hours or less, which falls in the clinically significant range for sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation and sleep disturbance have recently been linked as an independent, evidence-based risk factor for suicidal ideation, suicidal behaviors, and death by suicide. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has also listed sleep disturbance as one of the top 10 warning signs of suicide.

I recently spoke to someone I hadn’t seen since elementary school who told me that he attempted to kill himself every year since entering middle school. At least one source of his relentless suicidality became apparent when he told me he had been sleeping only two to five hours every night.

As someone who has lived with bipolar disorder, I know two weeks of sleep deprivation would send me into relapse. Fortunately, I have learned that quality sleep is mandatory for my mental health and for many years has kept me healthy, happy, and pharmaceutical-free even as a school district administrator through a pandemic.

Sleep is the Only Remedy

After 30 years working in youth mental health, one thing I can confidently say is there is no behavior plan, individualized education plan, specialized program, or amount of therapy that can eliminate the problems caused by sleep deprivation. Sleep is the only remedy. It is often the first point of intervention in my work with youth and I have found other therapeutic interventions more effective once sleep is restored. In some cases, restoring sleep is the only intervention needed—and at times I have seen it work virtually overnight.

The First Step to Ending the Crisis

Getting laser-focused on restoring youth sleep is key, and making sure kids do not have access to electronics during the night would be a great place to start. With so many kids so firmly attached to devices, it may take an intervention just shy of major surgery to separate them—but in my view, it is the necessary first step to end the crisis. As is true with any recommendation, it is important for parents to talk to their children first and discuss your concerns prior to making changes.

Once we get youth the sleep they need, a robust collective effort will still be needed to fully restore youth mental health. Systemic changes that respect the developmental needs of our youth and educational programming to support proper sleep hygiene should be part of that sustained effort.

But for now, we need to focus on putting the fire out. A significant body of evidence suggests that if we can successfully get kids sleeping again, we could be well on the way to making our current youth mental health crisis a thing of the past.

If you or someone you love is contemplating suicide, seek help immediately. For help 24/7 contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK, or the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. To find a therapist near you, see the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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