Insomnia in teens is a major public health problem. Here’s how to fix it.
A recent study indicated that 69 percent of high school students are failing to obtain the eight to 10 hours per night that they need.
Insufficient sleep among American teenagers was deemed a major public-health problem by the American Academy of Pediatrics way back in 2005. Since then, the problem seems to have only grown worse, with a more recent study indicating that 69 percent of high school students are failing to get the eight to 10 hours a night that they need.
The reasons for this are plentiful, from the biological shifts in sleep-wake cycles that occur during adolescence, to the homework, jobs, and electronic devices that keep them up too late at night, to the middle and high schools that start too early in the morning.
Add to this that a lot of teens simply have a hard time falling and staying asleep due to insomnia. For example, a large, nationally representative study of more than 6,000 American teenagers in 2015 estimated that about 33 percent experience insomnia lasting for two weeks or more each year. Moreover, teen insomnia was associated with increased risk and exacerbation of mental-health issues including depression, anxiety, behavior problems, and suicidality.
Insomnia also affects around 20 percent of American adults and is similarly associated with physical and mental-health problems, as well as lost worker productivity. No wonder that this all-around misery-maker also supports a $2 billion annual market for prescribed and over-the-counter sleeping aids, including melatonin.
The problem with using medications for insomnia is that they’re expensive and they don’t work long-term – stop taking the pills and the insomnia returns like a bad dream.
By contrast, cognitive-behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-i) is so effective and durable that it is considered the first-line treatment for insomnia in adults, recommended by both the American College of Physicians and the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.
That is why it is so heartening that a growing body of research shows that CBT-i provides that same relief when delivered to adolescents. What’s more, a recently published study that followed teens for one year after receiving just six sessions of CBT-i showed that they continued to report improved sleep during that time, but also fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression.
CBT-i is nothing fancy: It’s a relatively streamlined intervention that focuses on common-sense behavior changes regarding bedtime and waking routines that, if practiced consistently, prove remarkably successful in alleviating insomnia. The news that teens can follow these strategies and benefit similarly to adults should help all of us sleep better at night.
For more information about sleep health, including a listing of sleep therapists, visit www.sleepfoundation.org, a website maintained by the nonprofit National Sleep Foundation.
CBT-i Coach is a free app put out by Veterans Affairs and Stanford University Medical Center that guides users through the process of developing healthy sleep habits.
And, of course, better sleep can be encouraged by setting bedtimes, keeping bedrooms dark and cool, shutting off all screens one hour before bedtime, saving the bed as a place for sleep and nothing else, and trying to keep as regular a sleep schedule as possible, even on the weekends.
Katherine K. Dahlsgaard, PhD, is clinical director of the Anxiety Behaviors Clinic at the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.