Science & Tech

Michael Murack is a University of Ottawa PhD candidate studying experimental psychology with a specialization in behavioural neuroscience. Image: Dasser Kamran/The Fulcrum
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Content Warning: Mental health and animal testing.

Do you feel down when you deviate from your sleep schedule? It turns out, there’s a scientific reason for this phenomenon.

According to research findings from University of Ottawa PhD candidate Michael Murack, adolescents with uneven sleep schedules are prone to chronic stress and depression.

Murack studies experimental psychology with a specialization in behavioural neuroscience. And his explorative research project was co-supervised by Dr. Nafissa Ismail and Dr. Claude Messier. 

In the study, the researchers delayed the sleep schedule of both adolescent and adult mice by four hours a night for seven days. Here were the results: adolescent mice showed depressive behaviours in response to the sleep delay. 

“[We] saw an increase in depression in the adolescent mice,” said Murack. The findings were visible in the mice who underwent “abrupt change[s] in sleeping behaviours.” 

To test for depression, the researchers dropped the mice in a small pool of water. The adolescent mice had no desire nor the energy to escape. So, based on these results, the researchers concluded that the mice displayed behaviours of despair.

Murack and his team hypothesized that this behaviour also occurs in human adolescents.

Murack says, “most adolescents go to bed around 11 p.m. or 12 a.m. on school nights, which is later than most children go to bed.” This is a “natural sleep delay” and it is “healthy and normal.” What’s most harmful to the mental health of adolescents is social jet lag. 

Social jet lag is the abrupt change in one’s sleep patterns due to a change in social responsibility. For example, on a weekday, most teens are socially obligated to go to sleep at a reasonable time so that they can get to school on time. But on weekends, teenagers’ schedules might be more open. So, adolescents are free to stay up much later than normal. 

If an adolescent maintains this sort of inconsistent sleep schedule, they are likely to develop chronic stress. And this “changes the underlying pathways in the brain that control stress,” says Murack. This means that the teenager will not have the brain mechanisms to effectively manage stress. 

According to Murack, both female and male adolescent mice are prone to depression. The findings surprised him because “depression is twice as prevalent in females then it is in males.”

Murack is worried that the pandemic allows students adolescents to maintain erratic sleep schedules. Canadian teenagers do not have the same social responsibilities they had before the pandemic. For example, teens cannot attend school regularly nor can they participate in social activities that once gave their lives structure. 

Social workers affiliated with U of O say the pandemic saddles students with additional stressors. The Peer Help Centre offers mental health services to “provide [students] with academic, personal, and social support through resource distribution and short-term peer consultation.” These supports include Active Listening Sessions over Zoom and Peer Support Chat.

Coordinator Mira Ghossein says more students, “have requested mental health services in 2020 compared to 2019.” And she encourages students to sign-up for Active Listening Sessions. Ghossein says students can better ease stress when they talk about their struggles with a peer. 

Ghossein says that social isolation is one of the reasons why students feel unusually anxious and depressed.

“After the pandemic started, so many students reached-out to us, especially over the summer. And unfortunately, too many of these students are in a state of crisis,” said Ghossein. 

This anxiousness felt at U of O somewhat relates to Murack’s findings. 

 “[Lack of sleep] takes away from [a young student’s] ability to deal with everyday stress,” explained Murack. And if this “stress hits harder and harder everyday, then [teens will eventually] get depressed.” 

Eventually, Murack hopes to investigate, “ways to prevent chronic sleep disruption [which will ultimately] prevent adolescent depression.”

If you or someone close to you is considering self-harm or suicide, please know that there are supports available. Here is a non-comprehensive list of local mental health resources. 

On Campus: 

  • University of Ottawa Health Services (UOHS), 100 Marie-Curie Private
    • Offers counselling, psychiatric services, individual, couple or family therapy, access to psycho-educational groups and referrals to specialists off-campus
  • Student Academic Success Service (SASS), 100 Marie-Curie Private
    • Offers individual counselling, peer-counselling, workshops, online therapy and group counselling using new stepped model; referrals
  • Faculty mentoring centres (locations differ by faculty)
    • Specialized mentoring services catered to the needs of students in each faculty