Sleep is integral to all aspects of our lives, yet sleep is often one of the first things we compromise when things become busy or overwhelming. Often our lives and daily routines, schools, workplaces and home or community environments are not structured in ways that value and prioritise the importance of good sleep.
Sleep is a critical component of not just our physical health, but our mental health. In March 2020, the Mental Health Foundation commissioned two surveys on sleep and mental health from1 YouGov: one of 4437 UK adults aged 18+2 and another of 2412 GB teenagers aged 13 to 19.3 In our surveys, nearly half (48%) of adults and two-thirds of teenagers (66%) agreed that sleeping badly has a negative effect on their mental health.
Increased awareness of the importance of sleep and systemic action on sleep should be a priority. Taking sleep seriously and understanding the many ways sleep interacts with our lives can help us harness its potential as a powerful way to promote and protect good mental health for all.
Our review of the existing research, alongside our new polling, highlights the important role sleep plays in the context of:
Sleep problems can be both a symptom of and a contributor to mental health problems. Treatment for sleep problems can help improve mental health. There is some evidence that treating sleep problems may help reduce depression symptoms in the general population, suggesting it may be an avenue for preventative mental health care.
Parents (particularly mothers) of young children experience significant changes to the quality and quantity of their sleep which can affect parental mental health and contribute to stress in families. Bedtime routines can help to build good sleep habits in children from an early age.
Adolescents’ routines, including school schedules, may affect the amount of sleep they get, which has implications for their mental health. School-based sleep education programmes can be used to increase student knowledge about the importance of sleep and how to develop healthy sleep habits.
The characteristics of a workplace affect our sleep and our mental health. In our survey, 37% of working adults reported that their work (for example, workload, problems with colleagues and worries about job security) reduces the amount of control they feel they have over their sleep.
Employers should ensure they support good sleep and good mental health at work by promoting a choice of shift, offering healthy sleep programmes to staff, promoting a good work-life balance and consulting experts and worker representatives to develop flexible work schedules.
There are inequalities in the quality and quantity of our sleep linked to our environment, race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, financial stability and experiences of trauma.
In our survey, a quarter (25%) of UK adults reported that worrying about money matters, including bills, negatively affected their sleep in the past month. Of those who were unemployed, more than a quarter (27%) reported experiencing suicidal thoughts and feelings due to a lack of sleep.
We recommend that:
Governments across the UK must incorporate sleep (including the prevention and treatment of sleep problems) into their mental health and wellbeing strategies – sleep is fundamental to good mental and physical health.
UK Research Councils must work with UK partners to fund research to better understand the role of sleep as a central determinant of health and wellbeing, and of directly addressing poor sleep as a central component of mental health.
While there are changes that can be made at a societal level to better recognise and prioritise sleep, there are also things each of us can start to work on today, as individuals, to support our own sleep and mental health.
Professor Colin Espie, Professor of Sleep Medicine at the University of Oxford, shared with MHF five principles for good sleep health, which are that we should:
- Value our sleep as something crucial to our lives, and take our sleep seriously
- Prioritise our sleep by putting sleep first when making choices about what we want to do
- Personalise our sleep by finding the ‘sleep window’ that works best for us
- Trust that sleep is a natural process and that our sleep will get itself into a good pattern
- Protect our sleep by avoiding or preventing things that can upset it
1 Total sample size was 4246 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 16 to 24 April 2020. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all UK adults (aged 18+).
2 All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 4437 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 9 to 11 March 2020. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all UK adults (aged 18+).
3 All figures, unless otherwise stated are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 2412 teenagers (aged 13 to 19 years). Fieldwork was undertaken between 11 to 30 March 2020. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB teenagers (aged 13 to 19 years).