World Sleep Day – an annual event targeted at raising awareness about sleep health issues – is set to arrive later this month. It’s an event that invites dialogue not only about the medical and scientific aspects of sleep, but about the social landscape surrounding it as well. It’s a surprisingly salient topic for those invested in conversations about mental health in this country, as there exists a strong connection between sleep quality and mental well-being.
Poor sleep is known to cause and exacerbate a number of mental health conditions, but it can also be a symptom. It’s a reality that’s easy to read in the statistics among Americans, who report both high levels of stress and endemically insufficient sleep.
An estimated 1 in every 3 U.S adults get less than the recommended 7 hours of sleep in a 24 hour period, while it is estimated that more than 50 million Americans suffer from chronic sleep disorders like insomnia, restless leg syndrome, and sleep apnea. Those figures may be sobering by themselves, but they pale in comparison to the picture that emerges when we take a closer look at how sleep impacts different demographics – because although lack of sleep is a pervasive issue that people from all walks of life face, it’s clear that it is one that disproportionately impacts our most vulnerable and disadvantaged populations.
A survey by the CDC found that 32.5% of people below the poverty line reported sleeping less than six hours at night, while a study comparing racial demographics found that Black Americans, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders, and multiracial Americans were far less likely to get the recommended amount of sleep.
A number of socio-economic factors contribute to these outcomes, from higher rates of obesity to proportionately higher levels of stress. Poor sleep then becomes a vicious cycle, as it can also cause and contribute to those same issues. The long-term ramifications of the divide in sleep quality along socioecological lines should not be ignored. The gap in sleep quality doesn’t just reflect wealth inequality in America; it reinforces it. The cascading effects of poor-quality sleep can impact upon the academic success of minority youth, as well as mental and physical outcomes. Sleep disparities put lower-income households at higher risk for serious health conditions and psychiatric illnesses and make them much more likely to experience sleep-related loss of income and productivity.
While sleep health has always traditionally been looked on as merely an individual concern, it is not. It is inextricably linked with our mental health crisis and a problem that sleep scientists have been raising alarms about for years now.
Quality sleep should not be for only those who can afford it. It’s an issue that warrants attention and intervention in the public sphere – so this month, please join us in recognizing World Sleep Day.