Let’s Sleep on It, Colorado

Many Coloradans are not getting enough sleep. According to Behavioral Health Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS), more than a quarter of Colorado adults  — nearly 1.2 million people — did not get the recommended seven or more hours of sleep per night last year.

Going without sleep usually doesn’t feel good and can affect performance at work or in the classroom. It’s well-established, for example, that being drowsy is bad for tasks like operating heavy machinery or taking a test at school.

But all of that missed sleep also leads to an often-overlooked consequence: Poor mental health. According to the BRFSS, those who reported sleeping less than seven hours a night were more likely to report mental health distress (defined as 14 or more reported poor mental health days in the last month) than their well-rested counterparts in 2020 (20.7% to 9.9%, respectively).

Root Causes, a project of the Colorado Health Institute in partnership with The Colorado Health Foundation, examines how insufficient sleep affects mental health among Coloradans. The model developed from this analysis quantifies the impact of sleep on mental health: If Coloradans increased the amount of sleep they got each night, there could be nearly a 3% improvement in the mental health distress rate.

The analysis also identifies other factors that indirectly impact mental health because they impact sleep. Eating healthy, access to health care, excelling at school, and having social supports also affect how well a person sleeps each night, and thus have an impact on their mental health.

The Importance of Sleep for Your Mental Health

Sleep significantly affects brain function, and better sleep can lead to better memory, better mood, and better overall health. Getting enough sleep has implications for other health behaviors that influence a person’s overall well-being. For instance, a good night’s sleep can have important effects on health outcomes, like reducing the risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

On the flip side, a lack of sleep is closely tied to many mental health disorders, like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia, among others. This relationship goes both ways: Existing mental health issues can impair a person’s ability to get enough sleep, and getting enough sleep can be a deterrent to developing mental health problems.

There’s also a racial component to sleep. According to the BRFSS, Black or African American Coloradans were much more likely to report not getting enough sleep, with 41.8% saying they got less than 7 hours of sleep per night compared with 24.7% of white Coloradans. Hispanic/Latino Coloradans were also more likely to report inadequate sleep than white Coloradans (29.7%).

Stress affects sleep patterns for communities of color. Environmental, social, and job factors that lead to stress — air pollution, crime, job loss, for example — have been shown to disproportionately affect people of color. Stress from discrimination in the workplace and social life can also affect sleep.

While the BRFSS data focuses on adults, sleep is also incredibly important for Colorado’s kids. Young people’s bodies and brains are developing, and poor sleep habits can have implications for their mental health as they age. The amount of sleep that adolescents get each night influences many different mental health outcomes, including depression, anxiety, and cognitive performance. Sleep is crucial for teenagers because they already face so many other changes, and sleeping enough each night improves their ability to handle their day-to-day stressors.

Helpful Policies and Interventions: A Good Place to Start

It is one thing to identify that improving sleep can help improve mental health. It’s another thing to change the big and small factors that affect sleep, like long hours at work or the ongoing stress of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But there have been attempts to make shifts that could help more people get the sleep they need.

Delaying school start times could reduce adolescent sleep deprivation. When the Cherry Creek School District delayed start times, researchers found that students were able to spend an additional 45 minutes in bed. Pushing back the start time for older students required an earlier start time for elementary students, though the study found no significant difference in the amount of sleep these young students got each night. Boulder Valley School District and Brighton 27J have also taken similar approaches.

Some workplace policies also aim to improve sleep and ultimately productivity and wellness on the job. Some employers have set up educational programs stressing better sleep habits or fatigue management. Others approaches include:

  • Encouraging physical activity, which can help improve sleep patterns.
  • Changing the workplace environment, such as improving access to windows and natural light throughout the workday.
  • Connecting workers who have sleep problems with sleep disorder centers.

These interventions seem to work: In workplaces that encouraged better sleep habits and general wellness practices, there was self-reported improvement in sleep outcomes and increased job performance. That’s evidence that prioritizing policies and routines that support solid sleep could help people clock more hours in bed — and improve their mental health.

So when we talk about mental health in Colorado, we shouldn’t overlook this most basic human function. Supporting people’s ability to get enough sleep at night is a vital part of supporting mental health.

This report uses data from the Colorado Health Institute’s Root Causes project. Root Causes, developed with support from The Colorado Health Foundation, explores data on social factors and how they connect with mental health in communities across the state.

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