Could improving sleep in adolescents reduce substance abuse?

December 2, 2013

In October, Emily Ozer and Allison Harvey received a $710,000 grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse to study sleep patterns and substance use among high school students. Ozer is an associate professor in the UC Berkeley School of Public Health and the director of the Health and Social Behavior program. Allison Harvey is a professor in the UC Berkeley Department of Psychology and the Director of the Clinical Science Program and Psychology Clinic. Their study will be the first to test a universal intervention to promote sleep as a way to reduce substance abuse in adolescents.

“This is an opportunity to bring sleep science out of the lab and test it as a population health intervention in schools,” Ozer said about the study.

Over the three-year duration of this grant, Ozer and Harvey will pilot a school-based prevention program for urban ninth graders, Sleep Fitness. The program draws on empirically-supported interventions for sleep problems, adapted to be effective in promoting healthful sleep patterns. 

The study will examine if reductions in substance use are mediated by improvements in sleep and mental health. Often, because of busy work and home lives, high schoolers use substances like coffee or energy drinks to stay awake. Alternately, some adolescents may use marijuana to go to sleep when they aren’t able to unwind.

If positive, the findings will have major public health implications for adolescent health promotion, as well as for the interactive relationships among sleep, substance use, and mental health among urban teenagers.

Adolescence is a sensitive time, Ozer said, because sleep can be a trigger for psychological disorders that are known to increase at this same age.

“When you’re looking at the incidence of disorders, it really goes up during the transition to high school,” she said. “It’s a really hard time when there are a lot of stressors, when kids can get off track in a lot of ways.”

If successful, the intervention would be expanded to more urban high schools and tested on a larger scale in further studies.

By Erik Neumann