Adolescents Predisposed to Insomnia-Driven Depression

Adolescents Predisposed to Insomnia-Driven Depression
Australian researchers have found that adolescents are susceptible to insomnia, which in turn leads to depression. (Pormezz/Adobe Stock)
Steve Milne

New Australian research indicates that adolescents’ vulnerability to insomnia increases their likelihood of developing depression.

Led by Flinders University in Adelaide, the paper published in the journal Nature Reviews Psychology suggests that a combination of adolescent sleep biology and psychology makes young people vulnerable to developing depression.

Lecturer at the School of Psychological Sciences at The University of Western Australia (UWA) and co-author of the paper, Dr. Cele Richardson, said a delayed circadian rhythm, restricted sleep duration, and greater likelihood of negative thinking while trying to fall asleep were all contributing factors to this susceptibility to depression.

“Adolescents are the most chronically sleep-restricted subpopulation across human development, in both western and eastern societies, with data from across the world suggesting they sleep too late and too little,” she said.

The research team discovered that during adolescence, developmental changes to the biological systems that regulate sleeping and waking provided pathways to depression.

“The first factor is a slower build-up of sleepiness across the day, which delays the onset of sleep in older adolescents,” Richardson said.

“Although teens fall asleep later, school start times remain early, which means it is hard for young people to achieve an optimal 9.3 hours of sleep, and this sleep restriction, in turn, increases depression symptoms.

“Secondly, difficulty falling asleep is further worsened by a delay in circadian rhythm timing which occurs across adolescent development and having a late timed body clock is consistently associated with increased risk for depression.”

Richardson added that these two factors then lead to a third, more psychological pathway to depression, the opportunity for repeated worry and rumination, which is also associated with adolescent depression.

Sleep researchers (left to right) Dr Cele Richardson, Dr Michelle Short, PhD Michal Kahn and Dr Gorica Micic. (Image supplied by Flinders University)
Sleep researchers (left to right) Dr Cele Richardson, Dr Michelle Short, PhD Michal Kahn and Dr Gorica Micic. (Image supplied by Flinders University)

Interventions to Prevent Insomnia-Related Depression

Richardson suggests that evidence-based sleep interventions such as bright light therapy, the use of melatonin, and cognitive-behaviour therapy techniques may alleviate depressive symptoms in adolescents.

“Further research into the role of sleep in depression may also help us to develop more effective prevention approaches so that we can stop the onset of depression, at least for some young people,” she said.

Meanwhile, Dr. Gorica Mimic of Flinders Institute of Sleep Health and co-author of the research paper recommended schools and communities bring sleep education into their curriculums to support the well-being of young people during this vulnerable period.

“Given that underlying biological and physiological factors significantly contribute to this manifestation, basic sleep knowledge and what happens during sleep in adolescence can help young people better understand and manage their sleep,” she said.

The onus is also on parents, said co-author and Flinders University researcher Dr. Michelle Short, who suggested parents support teen sleep and mental health by setting bedtime limits on school nights.

She also noted that schools could abstain from scheduling extra-curricular activities before school and not start classes before 8:30 a.m.

Richardson is currently recruiting young people aged between 13 and 18 to participate in a clinical trial where bright light therapy will be given in conjunction with a common treatment for depression to determine whether it improves outcomes for adolescents.

Steve is an Australian reporter based in Sydney covering sport, the arts, and politics. He is an experienced English teacher, qualified nutritionist, sports enthusiast, and amateur musician. Contact him at [email protected].
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