Laura is a Journalism and Social and Political Science student at UTS with a keen interest in politics, travel and popular culture. Twitter: @LauraSPennisi
For many young Australians including Katie Robinson, sleep disorders can cause serious health issues.
Five years ago, Katie, 21, was diagnosed with idiopathic hypersomnia, a sleep disorder characterised by excessive daytime sleepiness and fatigue. Katie now faces an everyday battle against the mental and social isolation caused by her condition.
“It’s impacted my mental health severely…my mood is always low, I’m not very sociable…all I want is for people to understand what it is like,” according to Katie, a nursing student at Swinburne University in Melbourne.
A recent research review conducted by the Sleep Health Foundation found a clear link between mental health and sleeping habits in young people.
The report showed prevalence rates of severe clinical insomnia in Australia sitting at 11% for 18–24-year-olds, with sleep disturbances putting young people at an increased risk of current and future depression, anxiety and low self-esteem.
Alice* is a mother of three from South Australia who has narcolepsy with cataplexy, a neurological disorder that causes persistent sleepiness and symptoms such as brief episodes of muscle weakness. Her eldest daughter Caitlin*, 24, was diagnosed with the same conditions six years ago, and her middle daughter Annie*, 19, has idiopathic hypersomnia.
Alice says the mental and social impact of her daughters sleeping disorders have been severe.
“Caitlin is very isolated. She doesn’t have a lot of friends…she’s also been diagnosed with depression and anxiety,” Alice said.
“It’s not only the physical struggle…I’m thinking about everyone else as well as managing my own condition so the mental load is huge.”
The review also found that adolescents between the ages of 14-17 years are only getting between six-and-a-half to seven-and-a-half hours of sleep on school nights, which is well under the recommended eight to 10 hours.
Tom Traae, Clinical and Operations Manager at Headspace Bankstown, says sleep is impacted by stress and can be worsened by the pressure put on young people to succeed in their studies.
“With the modern education system, where so much is riding on things like ATAR scores…that is going to be very stressful for young people particularly between the ages of 16 to18. That impacts on mental health and sleep in a big way,” Mr Traae says.
A balanced routine, practicing good sleep hygiene, relaxation and mindfulness strategies are all techniques found to be beneficial to mental health in young adults, according to the review.
According to Mr Traae, being able to balance school, sleep and social life commitments while maintaining adequate self-care is crucial in managing mental health issues.
“What we find is that when a person is neglecting any areas of daily functioning such as sleeping, eating, socialising, grooming yourself and basically the essentials of healthy living…their mental symptoms seem to worsen,” Mr Traae said.
“What we find is that the better the balance in a person’s life, the better their academic performance.”
For Katie, achieving a balance in her everyday life can be difficult, as she often relies on the help of her loved ones to manage her daily schedule and university work.
“I have to get my mum to make sure I am getting up each morning for uni, otherwise I will just sleep through my alarm and not wake up in time,” Katie said.
“It’s had a massive effect on my university work…I am lucky enough to have the support of my partner who often helps me go through assessments as I find it hard to study for longer periods of time.”
And while many people use their phones to wind down before bed at night, the review found that it can do more harm than good. Those who used their phone after lights out were 2.2 times more likely to take longer than 30 minutes to fall asleep and experience sleep disturbances, compared to those who never used their phone after lights out.
However, Dr Grant Blashki, from Beyond Blue, says it’s not all bad in terms of technology, with e-Mental health apps and websites proving to be helpful in managing risk factors of poor sleep such as phone usage.
“We’re in the midst of a major social experiment where people are spending many hours of their days on screens and we’re not exactly sure how that’s going to impact people’s long-term mental wellbeing,” Dr Blashki says.
“There’s some really good apps to help people manage their screen time and help people with their mental health and sleep…one of my favourites is called Smiling Mind, which is a meditation app that helps people slow down their thinking and get them off to sleep at night.”
According to Dr Aliza Werner-Seidler,Clinical Psychologist at the Black Dog Institute, technology is extremely effective in delivering mental health interventions to young people across Australia, despite certain barriers such as cost and location.
“We know from our work with young people that they would often prefer to manage the problem alone, rather than ask for help from a professional…. a lot of work being conducted at the Black Dog Institute is focused on making psychological treatments that work available to the community no matter where they live, at a low cost,” Dr Werner-Seidler says.
Sleep Ninja, an app currently being trialled by the institute, is aimed at helping young people improve their sleep patterns by changing behaviours and cognitions around sleep.
“The main goal of the Sleep Ninja app is to help young people improve their sleep patterns before their sleep deteriorates to a point where it is a risk factor for the onset of mental health problems like depression,” Dr Werner-Seidler says.
October is Mental Health Awareness Month in NSW, and Mr Traae says “one of the main messages for young people from Headspace is to seek help early”.
Beyond Blue’s support line is available online 24/7. For immediate support call 1300 224 636 or visit: https://www.beyondblue.org.au/get-support/get-immediate-support.