Lack of sleep could be affecting your child's mental health.

Adequate sleep is vital for a child’s health and wellbeing. That much is obvious. Without it their memory, attention span even immunity is compromised.

But a British headmaster has taken the argument one step further, attributing lack of sleep to mental illness in school-age children.

Shaun Fenton of Reigate Grammar School in Surrey told The Times a “dreadful cocktail” of too little exercise, stimulating after-school activities and electronic devices for students accruing damaging sleep deficits.

Deficits, he argues, that contribute to depression, anxiety and eating disorders.

“In future we will say, ‘Why did we not see the damage we were doing to our children by letting them have a lifestyle that robbed them of a good night’s sleep on a daily basis?’” he told The Times.

“This is not about a few irresponsible children. It is about all our children.”

Fenton believes that parents and educators are at risk of “betraying the next generation”, unless they act now. That, he argues, means enforcing firm routines, sleep lessons and a curfew for electronic devices.

How to get teens of their phones at night. Post continues…

Dr Chris Seton, Paediatric Sleep Specialist from the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research says Fenton’s comments are entirely valid.

“There’s a relationship between sleep deprivation and every single mental health disorder. Bar none,” he told Mamamia.

Dr Seton says the strength of the relationship between the two varies – depression and anxiety, for example, are among the most closely tied to lack of sleep – and notes the connection works both ways: mood disorders can cause poor sleep and poor sleep can trigger mood disorders.

It’s a vicious cycle, he argues, that can lead to children being misdiagnosed.

“I saw a kid today who’s been labelled as depressed and for five years has been on a cocktail of medications for depression, and none of them have worked because the kid is sleep deprived,” said Dr Seton. “He doesn’t have primary depression, he has depression from poor sleep.”

lack of sleep and mental health
Technology plays a role in sleep deprivation among teens. Image: iStock.

Dr Seton, who co-founded SleepShack, a web-based sleep program aimed at teenagers, says teens are the most vulnerable. Roughly 70 per cent are sleep-deprived - a figure that has almost doubled in a decade.

(For primary school kids it's 30 per cent, and younger children around 10-15 per cent.)

Of those teenagers, one quarter have an age-related disorder that affects their body clock, meaning their default would be to fall asleep later and wake up later. The remainder are victims of environmental factors, including busyness, stress, pressure to succeed and technology, that prevent them from achieving the required nine hours per night.

It's the latter group driving the increasing prevalence of sleep deprivation among teenagers. But both are at increased risk of mood and mental health disorders, and even - as some studies have shown - a greater risk of suicide in adulthood.

"To some extent sleep deprivation is viewed by society as just a normal thing that teenagers have," said Dr Seton, "whereas we would view it as a health issue for lots of reasons, including all the mood disorders that it triggers."

For more information about teenagers and sleep, as well as details about Dr Seton's SleepShack program, visit the website here.

For support please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800.

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