Yesterday, we looked at the impact early school start times have on academic performance and teenage auto fatalities. Today we explore the impact on mental health.
1: According to sleep expert Matthew Walker: “Forced by the hand of early school start times, this state of chronic sleep deprivation is especially concerning considering that adolescence is the most susceptible phase of life for developing chronic mental illnesses, such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and suicidality.
“Unnecessarily bankrupting the sleep of a teenager could make all the difference in the precarious tipping point between psychological wellness and lifelong psychiatric illness,” Matthew writes in Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams.
Not getting enough sleep is so dangerous because we miss out on REM or dream sleep: “that critical stage occurring in the final hours of sleep,” Matthew states.
“Back in the 1960s,” he writes, “when the functions of sleep were still largely unknown, researchers selectively deprived young adults of REM sleep, and thus dreaming, for a week, while still allowing them NREM [or deep] sleep” which happens during the early hours of falling asleep.
The researchers placed electrodes on the heads of the participants. Whenever someone would enter into the REM-sleep state, a research assistant would wake the subject and have them do math problems for up to ten minutes, thus preventing them from falling back into dream sleep. This procedure was repeated night after night for an entire week. Deep sleep was left largely intact, but REM sleep was reduced dramatically.
“It didn’t require all seven nights of dream-sleep deprivation before the mental health effects began to manifest,” Matthew observes. “By the third day, participants were expressing signs of psychosis. They became anxious, moody, and started to hallucinate. They were hearing things and seeing things that were not real.
“They also became paranoid. Some believed that the researchers were plotting against them in collusive ways—trying to poison them, for example. Others became convinced that the scientists were secret agents, and that the experiment was a thinly veiled government conspiracy of some wicked kind,” he writes.
This research showed sufficient REM sleep is “what stands between rationality and insanity,” Matthew observes. “Describe these symptoms to a psychiatrist without informing them of the REM-sleep deprivation context, and the clinician will give clear diagnoses of depression, anxiety disorders, and schizophrenia.”
2: Another reason to make sleep an important priority for educators involves the connection between insufficient sleep and the epidemic of ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).
“Children with this diagnosis are irritable, moodier, more distractible and unfocused in learning during the day, and have a significantly increased prevalence of depression and suicidal ideation,” Matthew writes. “These symptoms are [also] strongly overlapping with those caused by a lack of sleep.
“Take an under-slept child to a doctor and describe these symptoms without mentioning the lack of sleep, which is not uncommon, and what would you imagine the doctor is diagnosing the child with and medicating them for? Not deficient sleep, but ADHD,” he notes.
3: Not only that, but the common ADHD medications Adderall and Ritalin are “two of the most powerful drugs we know of to prevent sleep and keep the brain of an adult (or a child, in this case) wide awake,” Matthew observes. “Adderall is amphetamine with certain salts mixed in, and Ritalin is a similar stimulant, called methylphenidate.
Sleep expert Dr. Charles Czeisler has observed: “People are sitting in prison cells, and have been for decades, because they were caught selling amphetamines to minors on the street. However, we seem to have no problem at all in allowing pharmaceutical companies to broadcast prime-time commercials highlighting ADHD and promoting the sale of amphetamine-based drugs (e.g., Adderall, Ritalin).”
Reflection: What are the start times for schools where I live?
Action: Share this information with a principal or school board member.