Mental health of millions of adults and teens affected by poor sleep 

Oxford Professor Colin Espie says the coronavirus crisis has made things worse.

Millions of people in the UK say that poor sleep has negatively affected their mental health, according to new research from the Mental Health Foundation

Almost half of UK adults aged 18 and above (48%) said that sleeping badly had a negative effect on their mental health, according to polling conducted earlier this year.

The report -  Taking Sleep Seriously: Sleep and our Mental Health – found that more than a third of adults (35%) said that sleeping poorly had made them feel more anxious.

More than four in ten adults (42%)  said poor sleep over the previous month  had made them feel more stressed and overwhelmed – while more than four in ten (43%) said poor sleep had made them feel more irritable and angry.

Meanwhile, the report found that two thirds of teenagers (66%) aged 13-19 said that poor sleep has a negative effect on their mental health.

Oxford University Professor Colin Espie, a world-leading sleep medicine specialist from the University of Oxford, acted as the expert adviser for the report, with a member of his team.   

Colin said: "Sleep is a ‘need to have’, just like oxygen, water and food. We need to value and prioritise the benefits of sleep, because good sleep has a very significant positive impact on our mental health.  We also need to do much more as a society to get sleep on to the health agenda. 

"As winter approaches, let’s make sure that sleep is no longer the Cinderella of our public services. It’s time to recognise that sleep is mainstream and crucial to our wellbeing."

The research is published by the Mental Health Foundation to coincide with the first weekday after the clocks go back and reports on two YouGov surveys, of 4437 UK adults and 2412 GB teenagers carried out in March 2020.

Catherine Seymour, Head of Research at the Mental Health Foundation, said: "Our research has revealed evidence of the impact poor sleep is having on the nation’s mental health.  

"Sleep is a vital way to protect our mental health and prevent mental health problems. But it is not always easy to achieve this. There are many things we can do as individuals to improve our sleep. But it is essential that we take a whole-society approach if we want to tackle poor sleep in a comprehensive and effective way. That is why are asking the Government to make the prevention and treatment of sleep problems a key priority in their mental health and wellbeing strategies."

The report makes a series of recommendations on improving sleep. These include asking that employers consider conditions in the workplace that undermine sleep health in the same way they consider physical and other psychological hazards. 

For those working nightshifts, mandatory health assessments should include screening for sleep problems and, where possible, flexible and home working should be offered to employees.

Teenagers’ routines, including school schedules and early start times, may affect the amount of sleep they get, which has implications for their concentration, mood and mental health.  Delaying school and exam start times may help teenagers’ sleeping patterns by better aligning the school rhythm with that of their adolescent biological clock, making it more possible for students to get the sleep they need.    

Planners should prioritise elements of planning that have clear implications for sleep, such as: separation between loud roads and railways and residences; limiting street lighting visible from bedroom windows; building in acoustic dampening between noise sources and homes; and ensuring that buildings provide suitably temperature-controlled bedrooms.

The report also suggests that mobile phone companies should give more consideration to how they can support users to have enough sleep. This includes the use of a pop-up message after midnight or another time to prompt the user to minimise night-time and bed-time smartphone usage.

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