Staring at the clockWe all know how important sleep is in maintaining mental health and mood stability. Results from a recent study confirm this and serve as a caution to parents and mental health professionals alike not to overlook sleep anomalies as early warning signs of depression, bipolar, or anxiety disorders in teenagers and young adults.

The lead author of the study is Nick Glozier, MBBS, MRCPsych, PhD, associate professor of psychological medicine at the Brain and Mind Research Institute and the Centre for Integrated Research and Understanding of Sleep (CIRUS) at the University of Sydney in Australia.

The study found that young adults (17-24 years of age) who get fewer than eight hours of sleep per night are at greater risk of experiencing psychological distress – a combination of high levels of depression and anxiety. The study showed a 14% increase for each hour of sleep less than eight hours.

As the researchers point out, shorter sleep duration may be a cause of mental distress or a symptom of underlying mental distress or both (comorbid). However, according to Glozier, “The increased reporting of stress seen in many countries over the past decade or two in this young adult population may reflect lifestyle or other changes that lead to too few hours of sleep.”

The authors are careful to point out that their study does not call for any broad efforts in increase sleep duration among all young adults. Targeting those at greatest risk – those suffering from mental distress or experiencing extremely brief sleep cycles of 1-5 hours per night – is key.

The take away lesson from this study and others like it is the importance of getting a sufficient amount of sleep (for children and adults both young and old), and the importance of intervention when sleep durations become extremely brief.