Is Sleep Deprivation Putting Your Teen at Risk for Depression & Thoughts of Suicide?

By Hugh C. McBride

The “sleepy teen” is somewhat of a stock character in countless sitcoms and other forms of pop culture entertainment. For example, one of the running jokes in the comic strip Zits involves two parents’ exasperation over the hibernation-like sleep habits of their teenage son.

But while this topic may be a popular choice for less-than-inspired scriptwriters, the truth of the matter is that sleep – or, to be more specific, the lack thereof – is an important issue that may be wreaking havoc with the mental health of adolescents and teenagers around the world.

For example, after evaluating data on more than 15,000 U.S. teenagers that had been collected by the National Institutes of Health, a team headed by Columbia University Medical Center researcher James Gangwisch determined that sleeplessness increased the likelihood of teen depression and thoughts of suicide.

An Oct. 2, 2009, article by Greg Toppo of USA Today provided the following details about the Columbia analysis:

  • Adolescents and teenagers whose parents didn’t require them to be in bed before midnight on school nights were found to be 42 percent more likely to suffer from depression than were teens whose parents required them to be in bed by 10 p.m.
  • Teens who were regularly allowed to stay up later than 10 p.m. were determined to be 30 percent more likely to have had suicidal thoughts in the past year.
  • After controlling for factors such as age, sex, race and ethnicity, the researchers found that the differences were “smaller but still significant” — 25 percent in the depression category and 20 percent in the suicidal ideation category.

“We feel like we can just eat into our sleep time, but we pay for it in many different ways,” Gangwisch told USA Today.

Is Your Teen Getting Enough Sleep?

According to information provided by the Mayo Clinic, most teenagers need about nine hours of sleep every night in order to maintain “optimal daytime alertness.” The National Sleep Foundation concurs, reporting that most teens need between 8.5 and 9.25 hours of sleep every night.

However, as the Mayo Clinic, the National Sleep Foundation and other reliable sources have noted, many teens are falling far short of this nine-hours-a-night standard.

What’s standing in the way of a good night’s sleep for many teens? The following are among the factors that sleep experts and others have identified as common contributors to teen sleep deprivation:

  • Circadian rhythms – A technical term for “body clock,” circadian rhythms are our body’s way of telling us when (and how much) we need to sleep. In the past 15 years, research into adolescent circadian rhythms indicates puberty may disrupt these rhythms, resulting in a biological urge to stay up later and sleep longer – an urge that doesn’t fit with many teens’ busy schedules.
  • Too much technology – Many teens are spending excessive amounts of late-night time surfing the Internet, texting friends and engaging in other tech-related activities instead of sleeping.
  • Stress, depression and related issues – As is also the case with adults, adolescents and teens who are suffering from stress, anxiety or depression may be less likely to get a good night’s sleep. The depression-insomnia cycle can be particularly insidious, as depression can either lead to or be caused by sleeplessness.
  • Diet and exercise deficiencies – Along with a range of other negative health effects, poor diet and a lack of appropriate exercise have both been identified as potential causes of sleep problems.
  • Overly busy schedules – For many teens, an average day of school, extracurricular activities and an after-school job leaves little time for a good night’s sleep. Add in some volunteer work, private lessons, extended online time, and a few moments for meals and other assorted necessities, and it can often seem like there really aren’t enough hours in the day for today’s teens.

The Dangers of Sleep Deprivation

As was indicated earlier in this article, sleep deprivation may lead to teen depression and even thoughts of suicide. But these aren’t the only dangers facing young people who aren’t getting an adequate amount of shuteye.

The following are three of the most prevalent risks facing adolescents and teenagers who aren’t getting enough sleep on a regular basis:

  • Impaired cognition – Sleeplessness is associated with an impaired ability to focus, concentrate, think clearly and apply problem-solving skills. Young people who experience deficits in these areas are likely to struggle in school, which can lead to a host of other problems, including frustration, academic failure, and conflicts with parents and teachers.
  • Substance Abuse – Adolescents and teens who are overly exhausted may be tempted by the promise of a chemically enhanced “pick-me-up.” Teens who can’t concentrate in the classroom may decide that abusing Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) medications such as Ritalin or Adderall is their only option for keeping up. And those who rely on drugs to keep themselves awake and alert throughout the day often develop a dependency on other substances to get to sleep at night.
  • Safety concerns – Many experts have noted that driving while exhausted can be as dangerous as driving while under the influence of alcohol or another drug. Because fatigue affects a person’s focus, concentration and judgment, sleep-deprived teens are also at increased risk for accidents in school, at home or on the job.

5 Ways You Can Help

Getting an appropriate amount of sleep can be an important part of a young person’s physical, mental and social development. But environmental influences and biological realities may preclude many adolescents and teens from getting the sleep that they need.

The following five tips can help you ensure that your child is getting an adequate amount of rest:

  1. Set (and enforce) a bedtime for your teen. Yes, there may well be arguments about this – but something as simple as ensuring that your child is in bed at a decent hour can solve a host of other problems.
  2. Limit the use of computers, cell phones and other technology during designated “sleep hours.” If this requires confiscating your child’s phone overnight, so be it.
  3. Don’t over-schedule your children – and make sure that they’re not taking on too many responsibilities on their own.
  4. Encourage a healthy lifestyle. Family meals and regular exercise offer myriad benefits, including an increased likelihood of a good night’s sleep.
  5. Watch for the warning signs. If you suspect that your teen may be depressed, anxious, engaging in substance abuse, or suffering from any other type of behavior or emotional disorder, don’t dismiss your observations. Get involved, ask questions and (if necessary) get the help you need.