The Role of Sleep in Teen Mental Health

tired teen

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Between school, homework, extracurricular activities, and the fact that teens are natural night owls, most teens aren’t getting enough sleep these days. It’s known that sleep deprivation can affect academic performance and physical health, but many don’t realize the strong impact a lack of sleep can have on teen mental health.

Let’s take a closer look at the connection between sleep deprivation and mental health in teens, what can be done to address the issue, how to help your teen get more sleep, and the best ways to help them manage their mental health.

Facts About Teen Sleep

In order to understand the connection between teen sleep and mental health, it’s important to understand the unique position teens are in when it comes to getting enough sleep.

There are many reasons why teens struggle to get enough sleep—including long school hours, working after school, overscheduling, and excessive homework. But one key reason teens struggle to get in their ZZZs is that they are biologically programmed to stay up late and sleep late in the morning.

As kids enter adolescence, their circadian rhythms change, and their body releases melatonin (a hormone responsible for making a person feel sleepy) about two hours later. This changes their sleep-wake cycles, making it difficult for them to go to sleep at a time that will allow them to rise easily in the early morning hours when school starts.

Research shows that most teens experience sleep deprivation. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, teens (kids between the ages of 13 and 18) need between 8 and 10 hours of sleep each night. Yet, the vast majority of teens do not get these recommended hours. In fact, a whopping 72.7% of high school students (grades 9 thru 12) did not get the recommended amount of sleep on school nights.

How Does Sleep Deprivation Affect Teen Mental Health?

There is currently a mental health crisis among teens in the United States. According to the CDC, mental health issues among teenagers have increased exponentially in the past decade. In 2019, 1 out of every 3 high school students experienced ongoing feelings of unhappiness or lack of hope. This represented a 40% increase since 2009 when data was previously collected. Additionally, 1 out of every 6 teenagers considered suicide in 2019—up 44% since 2009.

The Effects of Poor Sleep

What’s the connection between lack of sleep and increased mental health issues? Research has found several links between the two. Here's what to know:

  • According to a 2020 study in JAMA Pediatrics, sleep deprivation can negatively affect academic performance, school attendance, driving safety, and mental health.
  • A 2019 study published in Development and Psychopathology found that lack of sleep in teens leads to depressive symptoms. This is likely connected to the body’s stress response, which worsens during sleep deprivation.
  • A 2022 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health looked at data from 11,553 teens (13-14 year-olds) in the U.K. They found that sleep deprivation was strongly linked to attention deficit issues, behavior issues, and difficulties regulating emotions.
  • Finally, a 2015 study published in Journal of Youth and Adolescence found that losing even one hour of sleep increased feelings of depression, suicidal ideation, suicide attempts, and substance abuse.

What Can Be Done to Address Teen Sleep Deprivation?

One way to tackle the issue of teen sleep deprivation is to adjust school start times. Both the Academy of American Pediatrics (AAP) and the CDC have called upon schools to do this.

Adjust School Start Times

The AAP’s statement from 2014 recommends that middle schools don’t start before 8:00 am and that high schools don’t start until after 8:30 a.m. They explain that these measures could positively affect teens’ academic performance, physical health, and mental health. The AAP specifically says that later school times could decrease depression rates in teens.

Research backs up these claims. A study from the University of Minnesota of over 9,000 teens found that starting high school after 8:30 am allowed them to get at least 8 hours of sleep per night. The research team found that teens who got less than 8 hours of sleep had notably higher rates of depressive symptoms than teens who got their 8 hours in.

Despite these recommendations, many high schools need to shift start times. However, change may be on the horizon. In 2019, California became the first state to require middle schools to start after 8:00 a.m. and high schools to start after 8:30 a.m.

How to Help Your Teen Get More Sleep

Not all of us have the ability to send our kids to school later, or reduce our teens’ academic responsibilities. Still, there are things we can do as parents to ensure that our teens get a bit more sleep and better quality sleep.

Here are some things to try:

  • Consider setting a deadline for when your teen has to get off their screen, or institute a “no screens in the bedroom” rule. Phones and tablets emit blue light, which can interfere with the natural release of melatonin and make it hard to fall asleep.
  • Similarly, dimming the light in your home a few hours before bed can make it more likely that your teen will get sleepy and unwind for bedtime.
  • Limit your teens’ caffeine intake, especially later in the day. Consider limiting late night snacking as well, as this can keep your teen awake later.
  • Make sure your teen gets plenty of exercise and movement throughout the day, which can make sleep come easier.
  • When possible, try to scale back on activities. Let your teen pick one or two after school activities they enjoy, but don’t let them overbook their schedule.

Signs Your Teen Needs Mental Health Support

Lack of sleep is one factor that can lead to increased mental health issues in teens, but many factors may be at play, including social issues, issues at home, academic stress, and undiagnosed learning disabilities. Whatever the cause, it’s important to recognize symptoms of mental health challenges. Not all teens will tell you when they are having an issue.

Here are some signs that your teen may be struggling:

  • Clear differences in eating and sleep patterns
  • Sudden weight fluctuations
  • Lack of interest in activities your teen used to enjoy
  • Becoming reclusive and not wanting to socialize
  • Trouble completing work or lower grades
  • Racing, obsessive thoughts
  • Feeling hopeless, believing they are worthless
  • Withholding information, not sharing their feelings with parents
  • Drug or alcohol abuse
  • Self-harm, including cutting

If your teen is showing signs of mental health struggles, you must find them help. You can first speak to your pediatrician for a referral and what steps you need to take. You can also contact a child therapist or a therapist that specializes in adolescent therapy. 

Crisis Support

If your teen is having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If your teen is in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

A Word From Verywell

There are strong connections between teen sleep deprivation and mental health issues in teens, including depression, trouble regulating emotions, attention issues, and suicidal ideation. Helping your teen get more sleep is a great way to address their mental health challenges. But suppose your teens’ mental health struggles affect their day-to-day life or ability to function. In that case, they will need more than some extra sleep. Take your teen’s mental health seriously and connect with your pediatrician or a mental health professional for support.

13 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sleep in Middle and High School Students.

  2. Widome R, Berger AT, Iber C, et al. Association of Delaying School Start Time With Sleep Duration, Timing, and Quality Among Adolescents. JAMA Pediatrics. 2020;174(7):697–704. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2020.0344

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sleep in Middle and High School Students.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Mental Health.

  5. Kuhlman K, Chiang J, Bower J, et al. Sleep problems in adolescence are prospectively linked to later depressive symptoms via the cortisol awakening response. Development and Psychopathology. 2020;32(3):997-1006. doi:10.1017/S0954579419000762

  6. Qiu J, Morales-Muñoz I. Associations between Sleep and Mental Health in Adolescents: Results from the UK Millennium Cohort Study. International Journal for Environmental Research and Public Health. 2022;19(3):1868. doi:10.3390/ijerph19031868

  7. Winsler A, Deutsch A, Vorona RD, et al. Sleepless in Fairfax: the difference one more hour of sleep can make for teen hopelessness, suicidal ideation, and substance use. Journal of Youth and Adolescence. 2015;44(2):362-378. doi:10.1007/s10964-014-0170-3

  8. Adolescent Sleep Working Group, Committee on Adolescence, Council on School Health, et al. School Start Times for Adolescents. Pediatrics. 2014;134(3):642–649. doi:10.1542/peds.2014-1697

  9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Schools Start Too Early.

  10. Wahlstrom K, Dretzke B, Gordon M, et al. Examining the Impact of Later High School Start Times on the Health and Academic Performance of High School Students: A Multi-Site Study. Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement.

  11. California Legislative Information. Senate Bill No. 328.

  12. Esparham A. My teen is having more trouble falling asleep at night lately. How can I help? American Academy of Pediatrics.

  13. Chung RJ. Teen Mental Health: How to Know When Your Child Needs Help. American Academy of Pediatrics.

By Wendy Wisner
Wendy Wisner is a health and parenting writer, lactation consultant (IBCLC), and mom to two awesome sons.