By Sree Roy

We’re more than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic and it’s becoming increasingly clear that mental health has suffered. 

Though the prevalence of poor mental health varies by demographic, “a common theme that would support global and national healthcare systems would be the development of a mental healthcare strategy for pandemic-related interventions/treatments and service provision both short, medium and long-term use,” say authors of a systematic review that found the pandemic has led to higher suicidal ideation and lower well-being in the public. It also found the prevalence of anxiety to be 22.4% and depression 22.6%.

It’s also becoming increasingly clear that any pandemic-related mental health plan needs to include sleep interventions, as the pandemic has had notable and nuanced impacts on sleep.

But, interestingly, sleep quantity may not be the best target. It is sleep quality, including sleep latency and whether sleep is refreshing, that appears to have taken the most consistent hit during the pandemic—and which new research suggests is very much linked to mental health.

Sleep quality significantly outranked sleep quantity in predicting mental health and well-being

Shay-Ruby Wickham

A study in the United Kingdom found a sizable portion of the public slept more during the pandemic—but felt less rested than they normally would when they wake up. “Unrefreshing sleep of longer duration, so called hypersomnia, was reported at a high level, especially by younger people,” says Ivana Rosenzweig, PhD, of King’s College London, in a release about the research. “The associations between depressive symptoms and hypersomnia have been known for some time and again there is a complex two-way relationship between the two, which means they can create a self-perpetuating cycle.”

Pre-pandemic research also ties sleep quality to mental health. A study of more than 1,100 young adults found sleep quality to be the strongest predictor of mental health—even more than diet or exercise.

“This is surprising because sleep recommendations predominantly focus on quantity rather than quality. While we did see that both too little…and too much sleep…were associated with higher depressive symptoms and lower well-being, sleep quality significantly outranked sleep quantity in predicting mental health and well-being,” says lead author Shay-Ruby Wickham in a release.

Sree Roy Sleep Review
Sree Roy is editor of Sleep Review.

At the same time, a report published by Philips found 70% of people report experiencing one or more new sleep challenges since the beginning of the pandemic, with 43% saying waking up during the night is a challenge. But few sought help from a sleep specialist via telehealth (15%–16%), with many (70%) expecting it would be at least somewhat difficult to find help that way.

In the report, Mark Aloia, PhD, global lead for behavior change at Philips, says, “As sleep specialists, we need to guide consumers by helping to identify the barriers they face in achieving quality sleep, and provide solutions to address and overcome these challenges….This is a problem we can solve. We need to educate people on available resources and their proven benefits to encourage people to act on their desires to improve sleep quality.”

Improving sleep quality may facilitate mental health recovery as well.

Sree Roy is editor of Sleep Review.

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