From the Journals

High burden of mental health symptoms in teens with insomnia



Adolescents diagnosed with insomnia have a high prevalence of concurrent mental health disorders and should be screened for them, according to new research.

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For a study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, Tori R. Van Dyk, PhD, of Loma Linda (Calif.) University, and colleagues, enrolled 376 adolescents aged 11-18 years (mean age 14.5, 55% female) diagnosed with primary insomnia and referred to a sleep clinic. Subjects were evaluated using two validated questionnaires used to measure sleep disorders in adolescents, while caregivers reported and mental health diagnoses and symptoms using a standard behavioral checklist for adolescents.

Dr. Van Dyk and colleagues found that 75% of subjects had at least one or more parent-reported mental health diagnosis, most commonly anxiety, mood disorders, and ADHD. Some 64% had a clinical elevation of mental health symptoms on evaluation, most commonly affective disorders, with 40% of the cohort having two or more elevations. Specific mental health symptoms were seen linked with particular sleep symptoms. A greater burden of ADHD symptoms, for example, was significantly associated with more difficulties falling asleep, maintaining sleep, and reinitiating sleep after waking at night.

A total of 15% of subjects were reported by caregivers to engage in deliberate self-harming behaviors or talking about or attempting suicide – a higher rate than in the general adolescent population. “Because youth presenting for insomnia treatment may be even more likely to engage in self-harm behavior or to be suicidal, particular attention should be paid to directly assessing for these high-risk behaviors within the context of behavioral sleep medicine evaluations,” Dr. Van Dyk and colleagues wrote in their analysis.

Although mental health symptoms have been linked to sleep problems in other studies of children and adults, “associations identified in younger youths and/or adults should not be assumed to hold true among adolescents,” the researchers wrote, adding that adolescence “is a distinctive developmental period characterized by increases in both psychopathology and sleep problems, changing biology, increasing independence, and unique social and societal demands.” The investigators noted that because pediatric sleep specialists are relatively rare, the management of adolescent sleep problems and related mental health symptoms is likely to fall on primary care and other providers who “would benefit in recognizing the relationship between sleep problems and mental health symptoms in this population.”

Dr. Van Dyk and colleagues noted among the weaknesses of their study its cross-sectional design, use of parent-reported mental health symptoms only, lack of information on medication use or mental health treatment, and the potential for selection bias toward more severe cases.

The authors disclosed no outside funding or conflicts of interest related to their study.

SOURCE: Van Dyk TR et al. J Clin Sleep Med. 2019 Sep 6. doi: 10.5664/jcsm.7970.

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