How Sleep Disruption Has Impacted Young Adult Mental Health in 2020Reading Time: 4 minutes
However, young adults haven’t been sleeping well lately. A global study on sleep and mental health during the pandemic found that young adults got the worst sleep of any age group during the first half of 2020. Not coincidentally, they also had the highest rates of feeling depressed, experiencing loneliness, and overusing technology.
The study drew from data collected by the Sleep Cycle app, aggregated from more than 33 million nights of users’ sleep between January and May 2020. In addition, app users responded to a survey on sleep and mental health. Compared with other demographics, people aged 18 to 24 had the lowest average sleep quality.
Why Young Adults Are Experiencing Sleep Disruption
How much sleep do young adults need? Young adults need seven to nine hours of sleep each night, according to the National Sleep Foundation. But the demands of college and work, as well as socializing and entertainment, often prevent them from getting enough Zs, even during normal times.
Factors such as late-night studying, video games, social media, texting, watching TV, and other activities that expose the body to light during the normal sleep cycle can disrupt the circadian rhythm—the body’s internal clock. Furthermore, a recent study of 1,200 young adults found that 41 percent of females and 42 percent of males suffer from at least one sleep disorder, such as sleep apnea, chronic insomnia, or restless legs syndrome.
These issues are exacerbated by current circumstances. According to the Sleep Cycle study, these are the top reasons why young adults are experiencing sleep disruption during the pandemic:
- Increased technology use—blue light from screens blocks the release of melatonin, which makes sleeping more difficult
- Less time in natural light, which interferes with the sleep cycle
- Reduced exercise
- Drinking more alcohol, leading to awakenings throughout the night
- Feelings of anxiety, depression, and loneliness that keep young adults from falling asleep—increasing “sleep onset latency,” the period between being fully awake and asleep, which is critical to overall sleep health.
The Relationship Between Sleep and Mental Health
Sleep disturbances are a well-known side effect of most mental health disorders. Sleeping too much, being unable to sleep, needing very little sleep, and other sleep issues can be manifestations of mental health challenges, ranging from mild depression to psychotic episodes. Sleep, or the lack thereof, is an important indicator of whether a young adult is suffering from a mental health disorder.
Unsurprisingly, the Sleep Cycles study found that participants with mental health concerns were having a much harder time falling asleep during COVID. Among those with depression, 60.4 percent reported taking longer than usual to fall asleep, while 53.4 percent of those with anxiety took longer to fall asleep.
Long-Term Effects of Sleep Deprivation in Young Adults
Over time, the effects of sleep deprivation and sleep disruption can have a serious impact on mental and physical health. One study of 20,000 young adults found that each hour less of sleep increased the risk of psychological distress, while long sleep duration showed no association with distress.
Prioritizing sleep may be one of the most expedient pathways to mental and emotional health during troubling times.
Dr. Rebecca Robbins, PhD
Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, collaborator on the Sleep Cycles study
In addition, when an individual is deprived of sleep for an extended period, the risk increases of having physical health problems such as cardiovascular disease, weight loss or gain, Type 2 diabetes, and elevated cholesterol. Additionally, sleep disturbances are linked to high-risk behaviors, such as drug or alcohol use, having unprotected sex, and self-harm.
Therefore, sleep is vital for all young adults—and for those with mental health conditions, sleep is even more crucial. Recent research has determined that good sleep can help prevent episodes of depression and anxiety and help maintain good mental health. When combined with medical care and psychotherapy, healthy sleep practices can decrease the frequency and severity of symptoms.
6 Tips for Good Sleep Hygiene
To establish healthy sleep patterns, young adults can follow these tips for good sleep hygiene:
- Turn off tech devices at least one hour before bedtime
- Go to bed around the same time every night
- Maintain a similar bedtime routine each night
- Avoid caffeine, especially after lunch
- Don’t take naps during the day
- Wake up at the same time each morning.
In addition, getting vigorous exercise and fresh air during the day supports better sleep at night.
While these daily self-care tips benefit all young adults, those struggling with mental health challenges may see significant benefits when they add healthy sleep routines to their treatment protocols.