Leading up to the start of the new school year next month, I am sure you will recall that there have been some media coverage of reports on the sleep needs of our youth. I doubt that these report tells us much we all didn’t already know: getting teens out of bed is almost impossible. At least we now know it isn’t because they are just being difficult. We are asking them to do the exact opposite of what their bodies are designed to do at this stage of their development.
What I find lacking is that there has been little discussion on how this lack of sleep can influence mental health and substance use.
Chronic lack of sleep can affect mood in significant ways. We can all attest to the grumpiness and lack of patience we feel when we have been up too late or need to get up too early. Our guard is down, our temper can be short, and we don’t think clearly or necessarily act rationally.
For those who are prone toward mental illness or substance use disorders, lack of sleep can be dangerous. Alcoholics Anonymous clearly recognizes the danger lack of sleep poses to those in recovery, as individuals are advised to HALT before making any decisions when they are Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired.
What’s an adolescent to do when his or her body is begging for sleep, but schedules do not allow it? Why, take stimulants, of course! Energy drinks are the caffeine delivery device of choice for youth (although caffeine tablets are making a strong comeback), and prescription stimulants are all too common on college campuses. Whereas we all know adults who need that cup of coffee to get them going, it is usually one (sometimes quite large) cup of coffee. Teens fuel up with energy drinks several times more potent than coffee and drink them in sizes approaching a quart or take pills to override their body’s needs.
Let’s follow this through. If adolescents stay up too late, then get up too early on a regular basis, they resort to high levels of caffeine to make it through the day. When it is time to go to sleep, they can’t because they are wired. Too many students then take one of two dangerous paths. Some will double down on their stimulants, so they can go out with friends to “relax.” Though by the end of the week they are so tired all they really want to do is crash. By relax, they typically mean drinking alcohol, which only makes them more tired – so they need to mix their vodka with Red Bull. Other students, who are so wired from excess caffeine and lack of sleep, are too on edge to actually sleep even when they want to. So they need to take Xanax, Valium, or Ambien in order to fall asleep – only to need more stimulants like Adderall or Ritalin to get back up and function the next day. In both cases, these are unhealthy vicious cycles that can lead to mental health issues and addiction.
Perhaps prevention needs to take a new tack. Instead of advocating for parents to talk to their children about drugs, maybe they should be talking to their school boards about setting schedules conducive to healthy sleep patterns. Obviously, this is an over simplification, but maybe students would resort less to “better living through chemistry” if their environments supported naturally focused and relaxed states of being – all from a good night’s sleep.