Some people like to boast that they can function well when sleep deprived, and wear this as a badge of honor. While it is true that individual needs differ, it is also true that those who pride themselves on chronic sleep deprivation are kidding themselves, and possibly doing significant damage to their mental, cognitive, and physical well-being. The function of human sleep has puzzled scientists for a long time, yet slowly but surely, they are putting the pieces together as data mounts about the effects of sleep deprivation on mental health.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), sleep requirements for optimal health are 9-12 hours per 24 hours for children ages 6-12, 8-10 hours per 24 hours for adolescents, and 7-8 hours per night for adults. National surveys indicate, however, that a third of American adults are chronically sleep deprived, and nearly two-thirds of 17-year-olds report sleeping fewer than 7 hours per night despite the recommended 8 to 10 hours that is needed. Just what we needed – another epidemic.
Why Is Sleep So Important?
The bottom line is simple: sleep helps our brains function properly. And well-functioning brains that are primed and ready to learn are the foundation upon which educational success is built. According to Matthew Walker, Ph.D., a neuroscience and psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley who serves as Director of the Center for Human Sleep Science, “without sufficient sleep, our ability to learn — the acquisition of new memories — begins to rapidly break down.” Sleep is critical to learning and survival because it facilitates the transfer of information from short term memory into long term storage. “Sleep seems to be important in at least three ways. First, you need sleep before learning to actually get your brain ready to initially soak up new information, to initially lay down new memory traces. But you also then need to sleep after learning to take those freshly-minted memories … and then essentially hit the save button on them so that you don’t forget those informational pieces of the puzzle. So, sleep before learning to get your brain ready to acquire information. Sleep after learning to hold on to those individual facts.” Dr. Walker and his colleagues hypothesize that the area of the brain known as the hippocampus has limited capacity to store short term memories (new learnings) and that sleep is essential for saving and then transferring new memories to long term storage and retention in the cortex.
What We Have Learned from Sleep Deprivation Studies
It doesn’t take a scientific study to know that the lack of sleep affects mental health including fatigue and decreased energy during the day. But too little sleep and/or poor sleep quality can have many other harmful consequences. Research shows that sleep deprivation slows down communication between brain cells, making complex tasks that involve multiple areas of the brain much more difficult. It also causes various areas of the brain to become hyper-sensitive, e.g., it affects the brain’s rewards center, making us less capable of judging risks and rewards, and the amygdala, which plays a role in the ability to regulate our emotions. Concentration, mood, decision-making and self-regulation capacities all contribute to our overall mental health.
Research has also shown that sleep deprivation is associated with a higher risk for depression, anxiety, suicidality, and psychotic symptoms, and with cognitive problems such as disrupted memory and concentration that interfere with school performance. Poor sleep hygiene is associated with impaired judgment and increased impulsivity, placing youth at higher risk for behavioral problems, car accidents, and engaging in unsafe sexual practices.
Sleep difficulties are a common symptom of depression, and individuals who suffer with moderate to severe anxiety frequently report that their jittery bodies and worried minds keep them up at night. But the importance of sleep on mental health is clear – that is, there is considerable evidence that chronic sleep deprivation is not just the result of a mental health disorder, but also can create or exacerbate mental health symptoms. Sleep difficulties are also linked to many chronic health problems, such as heart disease, obesity, and diabetes. Sleep disturbances can also be a warning sign for other medical and neurological problems, such as congestive heart failure, osteoarthritis, and Parkinson’s disease. Sleep expert Dr. Matthew Walker has also identified another troubling side effect of sleep deprivation, the triggering of a “loneliness phenotype.” His research shows that people who are sleep deprived tend to avoid social interaction, contributing to both social isolation and loneliness, both of which are associated with a higher mortality rate. He has noted that this “asocial profile” is recognizable by other people, who, in turn, shun avoiders of social interaction, thus creating a vicious cycle of loneliness and other mental health disorders.
How Mental Health Support in Schools Can Make a Difference
Children and adolescents can be quick to discount the importance of sleep and harried parents may be weary of arguments over bedtimes, the use of electronic devices, and the importance of home routines. Educators can play an important role in promoting healthier sleep habits, and hence better student mental health, by doing what they do best, providing information and suggesting resources:
The district’s health and mental health staff can play a role in educating parents and students about the risks of sleep deprivation and sleep hygiene. Onsite mental health counselors or nurses can provide handouts with sleep hygiene tips that are appropriate for your students. Sleep hygiene involves things like waking up at about the same time every day – even on weekends – to regulate circadian rhythms; shutting off screens at least 30’ before bedtime; following a consistent bedtime routine that will signal the mind and body that it is time for sleep; separating one’s sleeping space (the bed) from other activities, like studying; avoiding foods with caffeine and heavy exercise within a few hours of bedtime, etc.
Staff should be encouraged to ask Effective School Solutions and/or other district mental health specialists to assess students who seem sleep deprived in class. Likewise, staff should inform parents if a student is exhibiting sleep deprivation symptoms, such as appearing regularly drowsy or falling asleep in class, suggesting a pediatrician visit, and informing them about in-school mental health resources.
SEL, physical education, and/or health class faculty can include in their curricula information and support about crafting a personalized sleep hygiene plan.
Districts can include information and support about sleep hygiene in parent newsletters and workshops, with an emphasis on helping parents understand their roles and limitations. No one can make another person fall asleep, but parents can set rules and boundaries that support sleep.
Districts can engage in serious conversations about scheduling changes that could support the needs of teenage students who, like adults, are having trouble sleeping, are in many cases overcommitted, and whose circadian rhythms are different (i.e., favor later bedtimes and waking up times).
A Final Word
Effective School Solutions staff are fully aware that the growing educational and mental health needs of students are already pushing school professionals outside the boundaries of their typical job descriptions, and we are not suggesting that teachers become sleep monitors and coaches. That said, we hope that awareness of the importance of sleep and the effects of sleep deprivation on mental health will help educators have another piece of the puzzle when it comes to understanding their students.
- Dr. Matthew Walker on Sleep for Enhancing Learning, Creativity, Immunity, and Glymphatic System (foundmyfitness.com)
- Blackwelder A, Hoskins M, Huber L. Effect of Inadequate Sleep on Frequent Mental Distress. Prev Chronic Dis 2021;18:200573. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5888/pcd18.200573
- Sleep for Teenagers | Sleep Foundation