Teachers should watch out for sleep-deprived students as a ‘red flag’ for mental-health problems, study finds

Children who sleep badly have an increased chance of developing mental-health problems, such as depression, anxiety and eating disorders, new research has found.

Poor sleepers are also more likely than other children to end up abusing drugs or alcohol, or indulging in risk-taking behaviour, according to academics from Goldsmiths, University of London, and Tel Aviv University.

Therefore, the academics claim in the latest edition of the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, teachers and parents must look out for children who are sleeping poorly, in order to catch potential problems before they develop.

Studies have shown that children today sleep less than those of previous generations. But sleep problems are often missed by parents, teachers and doctors.

In a review of five years of research into the causes and implications of sleep disorders in children, the academics found that sleep problems can serve as an early indication of problems that are likely to develop at a later stage.

Among the conditions associated with disturbed sleeping patterns in children were: depression, anxiety and stress-related problems. Similarly, pupils who suffer from poor impulse control or who act out in the classroom are also likely to sleep badly.

Indeed, poor sleeping is often a predictor of externalised behaviour problems. So, not only is it linked to bad behaviour, but also to substance abuse and addictions.

The academics also believe there may be a link between sleep disturbance and anxiety and depression during periods of transition, such the move from primary to secondary school.

Alice Gregory, the Goldsmiths author, said: “Disorders typically start early in life, so it’s negligent to ignore the childhood and adolescent period.

“Sleep can be assessed very early in life, and has been found to constitute an early risk indicator of later problems. Sleep disturbances may serve as a red flag for the development of a host of other disorders.”

The academics therefore call for multiple measures to be used to assess sleep, with a focus on the severity and duration of sleep difficulties. They also call for more focus on the biological mechanisms behind the link between sleep problems and mental-health problems.

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