Sleep Yourself Healthy: A New Initiative for Improving Teen Mental Health and Wellbeing

Professor Galland and Dr Edmonds, University of Otago

Adequate sleep is essential during the teenage years, particularly when it comes to mental health and wellbeing. Yet many teenagers are sleep deprived. So, how can we support our teens to get enough sleep during this critical time? Professor Barbara Galland and Dr Liza Edmonds believe they have the answer.  

Teenagers and Sleep 

During the teenage years, the brain and body undergo significant development — alongside hormonal, emotional, and social changes. Sleep supports the mental and physical changes that happen during this crucial stage of life, and plays an essential role in concentration, memory, decision-making, and emotional development. Importantly, sleep has also been found to have a strong relationship with mental health.

 Teenagers generally require more sleep than adults, and their sleep patterns are unique. Changes in the processes that control sleep-wake times, mean that teenagers often remain alert well into the evening. “Consequently, they need to sleep later in the morning,” says Professor Galland, a researcher at the University of Otago, but school start times put a brake on this — forcing many [teenagers] to become sleep-deprived.” 

The Negative Effects of Sleep Loss 

 Ongoing sleep loss during the teenage years is associated with many negative health outcomes including increased risk of negative mood, anxiety, depressive symptoms, suicide risk, inattention, unintentional injuries, and motor vehicle accidents. Professor Galland  highlights the role of sleep loss in cognitive and behavioural issues that can negatively affect academic performance, absenteeism, and enjoyment of schooling, and lead to absenteeism. “In addition,” she adds, “chronic [long-term] sleep-deprivation has been linked to a decreased resistance to common infections and illnesses, an increased risk of obesity, and an increase in cardiometabolic risk.” 

Later School Start Times 

“Later school start-times ensure immediate benefits to the teenager’s sleep,” says Professor Galland, “with [a] longer-term potential to improve their mental health, wellbeing, and school achievement.”  According to Professor Galland, later school start-times also represent the easiest way to combat sleep-deprivation in teenagers – and align with their unique sleep patterns. “Also,” says Professor Galland, “we can’t forget family relationships. Many parents of teenagers will know full-well how difficult and grumpy teens can become if they don’t get enough sleep.”  

But this phase of the research is not about implementing later school start-times – it’s about gathering the necessary evidence to understand how best to carry-out this initiative. “Later school start times impact many people and organisations,” says Professor Galland, “necessitating considerable consultation, enquiry and evaluation, before implementation.” Professor Galland, along with Dr Edmonds, a Clinical Senior Lecturer at the University of Otago, propose a collaborative research process — engaging key stakeholders such as students, whānau, after-school coaches, and transport operators. 

“This is what this research is about,” says Professor Galland, “formative work to understand the enablers or barriers to implementation . . . to determine how such a ‘simple’ yet potentially very effective intervention could work best for our rangatahi (youth) and within Aotearoa New Zealand .” 

How You Can Help 

This research is one of nine proposals chosen to receive Project Grants from Cure Kids in 2021. For 50 years, Cure Kids has been committed to enabling research that transforms children’s health in New Zealand. It is only through the generous contributions of people like you that Cure Kids can continue to fund impactful research — such as Professor Galland and Dr Edmonds research on later school start-times.  Find out how you can become a Cure Kids donor today. 

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