Evolve Adolescent Behavioral Health

The Link Between Childhood Insomnia and Mental Illness

Many kids have trouble sleeping now and then. But if your child doesn’t outgrow their sleep struggles, they may be at higher risk of mental health disorders like depression and anxiety.

New research shows the importance of identifying and addressing insomnia in children as early as possible. Children with insomnia symptoms that persist into young adulthood are almost three times more likely to have depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders, according to a 15-year study conducted by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. About 40 percent of children in the study didn’t outgrow their trouble falling or staying asleep.

Children whose symptoms improved over time weren’t at greater risk of mental health disorders as young adults. Researchers concluded that by intervening early, parents may be able to help prevent future mental health problems.

A Bi-Directional Relationship

The study aligns with previous research showing childhood sleep problems and mental health disorders are intertwined and can make each other worse. The relationship goes in both directions:

  • Sleep deprivation can bring on mental health symptoms like impulsivity, negative thinking, and suicidal thoughts. This underscores the importance of good sleep hygiene in adolescence.
  • People with mental health disorders are more likely to have insomnia and other sleep disorders.
  • Chronic sleep disturbances affect more than half of psychiatric patients.

Why does sleep affect mental health? Although the underlying mechanisms are complex and still under research, sleep does several important things for our brains and bodies. Getting a consistent, healthy amount of sleep every night can:

  • Boost immune system functioning
  • Enhance learning and memory
  • Contribute to emotional health
  • Regulate stress hormones and other brain chemicals

Mental Disorders Commonly Associated With Sleep Problems

Research links childhood insomnia with a wide range of mental health disorders, including:

  • Depression
    • 90% of adults and children with major depression have some type of sleep problem. The most common sleep issues are insomnia and obstructive sleep apnea.
    • Sleep problems also increase the risk of depression. One study found those with a history of insomnia were four times as likely as normal sleepers to develop major depression. Depressed individuals who experience insomnia are less likely to respond to treatment and are at greater risk of relapse.
  • Bipolar disorder
    • 99% of people with bipolar disorder experience insomnia or less need for sleep during a manic episode. Others report excessive sleep.
  • Anxiety
    • Sleep problems are common in people with generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and other types of anxiety. Common symptoms in adolescents include taking longer to fall asleep and sleeping less deeply than most kids.
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
    • 50% of kids with ADHD have trouble falling asleep or getting restful sleep. Other common problems are sleep-disordered breathing and restless legs syndrome or other movement disorders.

Symptoms of Sleep Problems in Teens

Since adolescents often stay up late and oversleep, it can be difficult to know if a teen has a sleep disorder. Look for symptoms like:

  • Refusing to go to bed or keep a regular sleep schedule
  • Struggling to fall or stay asleep
  • Feeling tired or falling asleep during the day
  • Waking frequently during the night
  • Trouble getting up in the morning
  • Irritability or difficulty concentrating
  • Behavioral problems such as impulsivity, aggression, hyperactivity, or defiant behavior

Treating Sleep and Mental Health Issues

Treating sleep issues in children can help alleviate mental health symptoms. There are several approaches that can help with both sleep and mental health, starting with these:

  • Lifestyle changes such as exercise and limiting sugar and caffeine at night
  • Meditation or other relaxation practices
  • Healthy sleep habits, including:
    • Keeping a consistent schedule
    • Leaving screens off or outside the bedroom
    • Maintaining a bedtime relaxation routine
  • Therapy and medication (if needed)

If your child shows signs of a sleep disorder, please consult your family physician. For some teens, sleep issues can be a sign of a medical concern or medication issue. Since sleep disorders often go hand in hand with mental health issues, consider talking with a counselor, therapist, or psychiatrist as well. Approaches like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help with both sleep disorders and mental health conditions. With help, your child can set up healthy sleep habits now that will support their physical and mental health for years to come.


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