“Just let me finish this text,” your teen might say. Maybe they plead for a few more minutes with a favorite video game or movie. For many parents, every weeknight brings a battle they struggle to win, and the enemy is often an electronic device. Thanks to smart phones, the Internet, movies, video games and personal computers, kids are exposed to a nearly unlimited wealth of content. They also have the opportunity to connect with their friends at all hours, and this nocturnal online activity can keep them from getting the proper amount of rest. Research shows that almost 70% of all U.S. teens aren’t getting enough sleep. Is this national sleep shortage contributing to a rise in mental health problems among our adolescents and teenagers?

We aren’t surprised when teens seem moody, angry, anxious, depressed or want to sleep all day. Most of us write this off as routine behavior for a teenager.

Is it possible that some of what you are seeing is actually the result of sleep deprivation? Research reveals that sleep, or the lack of it, may play a greater role in determining mental health than many parents realize.


Sleep and depression are clearly related, but they are curious cousins. Sometimes, depending on the person, the symptoms of depression include spending long periods of time in bed. For others, wrestling with clinically diagnosed depression involves regular bouts of insomnia.

The Midnight Hours

According to the National Institutes of Health, the average teenager should get nine or more hours of sleep every night. But in a recent study conducted by the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, only 3% said they got this much sleep per night. The survey, a random sampling of 27,939 ethnically diverse suburban high school students, found that 20% of the participants usually got by on five hours or less. The study also found that each hour of lost sleep could be linked to a disturbing rise in mental health statistics. Consider the growing numbers reported among sleep-deprived teens:

  • 38% increase in feeling sad and hopeless
  • 42% increase in suicidal thoughts
  • 58% increase in suicide attempts
  • 23% increase in substance abuse

Don’t Blame the Bed

To be fair, it’s important to stress that the study did not prove that a lack of sleep is the actual cause of these issues. In some cases, depression or anxiety could be the reason for a student’s insomnia.

“But the majority of the research evidence supports the causal direction being lack of sleep leading to problems rather than the other way around,” Adam Winsler, a psychology professor at George Mason University says.

Thinking Without Sleeping

Sleep deficits are known to reduce brain function, Winsler points out. This means that it also disrupts areas of behavior that may be difficult for even a resilient, well-rested adolescent to navigate, like self-control and judgment.

Parents, educators and therapists need to pay attention to the role of sleep in preventing mental illness among youth,” Winsler insists. “Its effect is likely larger than most therapies and medications.”

Dazed and Confused

Dr. Mary Carskadon, a professor of psychiatry at Brown University, likens sleep deprivation to a perpetual cloud or haze.

“One of the metaphors I use is that it’s like having an astigmatism,” she told ChildMind.org. “You don’t realize how bad your vision is until you get glasses or in this case, good sleep.” Carskadon says this ‘haze’ can have a negative impact on moods, thinking, reacting, regulating emotions, and the ability to judge risks.

Sleep Deprivation Can Be Fatal

In a National Sleep Foundation study, drowsiness or fatigue was determined to be the leading cause of more than 100,000 traffic accidents every year. A survey conducted by the state of North Carolina found that more than half of all the crashes related to sleep loss were caused by drivers under the age of 25. While no sensible parent would allow an intoxicated young family member to drive, they might not be aware that some of the same kinds of dangers exist for their exhausted offspring.

Students with active social lives are particularly vulnerable.

“The summer before my sophomore year in college, I’d routinely stay up past 3 am chatting online with my best friend because we missed each other and were still keeping college hours,” admits former student Carolyn Capputo. “Then I’d wake up at 6:30 in the morning to go to my summer job. I fell asleep driving to work more than once.”

Self Control and Sleep

Going without sleep can affect your ability to control your emotions and impulses. Dr. Ryan C. Meldrum, an assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at Florida International University, points to a link between sleep duration and aggression or impulse control.

“There’s a theory that views self-control not as a stable personality trait, but as something that is subject to the strains and stressors of the environment that people have to navigate on a daily basis,” Dr. Meldrum explains. “So imagine that self-control is like a muscle—if we exert a lot of energy and expend a lot of effort, we need rest and recuperation in order to restore one’s ability to self-regulate.”

Sleep Deficit and Attention Deficit

Dr. Allison Baker, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Child Mind Institute, says when some teens don’t get the kind of sleep they need to be able to self-regulate, they may appear to have ADHD. With these kids, sleep deprivation produces an inability to sit still and focus. Baker says, It’s an easy misdiagnosis to make.”

Risky Business

Carskadon’s research shows that sleep-deprived teens are far more likely to use poor judgment when it comes to their health.

“There is data that shows that because teens are not fully developed in terms of their executive functioning,” Carskadon says. “Even acute short-sleep can lead to risky behavior and poor judgment. The combination of the lack of infrastructure and poor sleep sends them down the wrong path.” The study cites a rise in these examples:

  • Stimulants such as caffeine and nicotine
  • Self-medicating with alcohol
  • Unprotected sex
  • Reckless driving

Anxiety and Mood

ChildMind.org reports that many of the teens interviewed for the research confessed that they were aware of the obvious changes in their behavior when they didn’t get enough sleep. Some noticed their anxiety increased.

“I’m miserable, things get to me more and I’m more fragile,” a 16-year-old female sophomore admitted.

“I’m just generally more grouchy and irritable,” one of her classmates said. “When I’m tired, everything else seems worse,” a junior revealed.

The answers aren’t simple. The direct links between sleep and mental disorders aren’t always clear. According to Childmind.org’s article on the study, some kids simply learn how to manage to get through the week without much sleep. Although it’s not a healthy practice, many said they tried to catch up by “binge-sleeping” to recharge so they could get through the next sleep-deprived week. But other kids, they noted, were not so resilient.

How to Bounce Back

To promote a good night’s sleep, MindMatters, a mental health initiative for secondary schools in Australia, offers these guidelines for teens:

  • Try to get up at about the same time each morning.
  • Do physical activity during the day, preferably outside.
  • If you’re worrying about things during the night, set aside some time for problem-solving during the day.
  • Avoid drinks that contain caffeine (e.g. tea, coffee or soft drinks) after 4 p.m. as it’s a brain stimulant.
  • Allow yourself time to wind down before going to bed. If you’re working or studying, stop at least 30 minutes before bedtime. Try to relax before bed, avoiding phones, tablets and TV.

The Wake Up Call

If your teen is struggling with the symptoms of depression, anxiety, or another form of behavior disorder, don’t wait for a crisis. Discovery Mood can help. We provide multi-faceted levels of care for adolescents and teens with anxiety disorders, depression, bipolar disorder, self-harm behaviors, gender identity, oppositional defiant disorder, eating disorders, and other serious mental health disorders. Our personalized behavior modification programs have been helping families find their way to recovery for more than 18 years.

Call Us Now 800.760.3934

Call Discovery Mood and speak with one of our highly trained admission specialists today. All calls are completely FREE and strictly confidential. Remember you can also take the FREE Teen Mental Health Evaluation. We encourage you to book up a tour of our locations and see for yourself the breadth and depth of our services. And if you are unable to visit us in person, call us now at 1-800-760-3934.