On Aug 25th the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a highly publicized position statement recommending middle and high schools start after 8:30am. Adopting later school start times is an effective way to increase adolescent sleep and thus improve adolescent health and safety – primarily because of a later shift in sleep cycle that occurs during puberty. The statement by the AAP follows numerous statements from health and education experts calling for attention to the matter. Now is the time for those of us in the trenches, social workers, to join the conversation. Why do social workers need to speak?
Research conducted over the last several decades has shown that chronic sleep loss is associated with a host of negative outcomes, and adolescents are our most sleep-deprived age group in America. Social workers see the repercussions of teen sleep debt in the form of increased substance abuse, depression, anxiety, auto accidents, sports injuries, bullying, crime, learning difficulties, and health problems.
Social workers honor clinical research and evidence-based practice, we recognize the unique stages of human development, and we understand the vital role of prevention in well-being. Given the broad impact of sleep deprivation on functioning – and the strong presence of social workers in mental health, substance abuse, education, forensics and medicine – we are the perfect profession to speak on this topic.
Media advisories from the Centers for Disease Control and position statements from the American Academy of Pediatrics carry more weight when they are complimented by the voices of local social workers who know the sleep-deprived kids by name.
Most importantly, social workers are well-versed in dealing with one of the biggest barriers to adopting later school start times which is people don’t like change. Even when familiar with the research, school boards and superintendents often feel pressured to maintain the status quo out of a real or imagined fear that change will be uncomfortable.
Fear of change? Discomfort? Those are the legs upon which we stand. We have eased individuals and communities through successful growth and change since the inception of the social work profession.
Social worker Mandi Mader in Montgomery County, Maryland is an excellent example of advocacy from the trenches in the start school later movement. Having witnessed the effects of chronic sleep deprivation in her clinical counseling practice she chose to act and has, in true social work fashion, effectively rocked the boat and opened eyes to the research – raising awareness in Maryland and setting the foundation for possible state-wide reform.
I have also seen the fallout from sleep loss in my counseling office. In order to catch a 6:30am bus, many Ohio teens are waking in the 5 o’clock hour despite the biochemical barriers to falling asleep before 11pm the night before. Adolescents require 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep for optimum health, and it doesn’t take long to do the math and realize why our teens are so sleep-deprived. I am now active with the national non-profit Start School Later along with Mandi Mader and other impressive advocates, and I am proud to serve as chair of the sleep committee for the Ohio Adolescent Health Partnership.
However we need more voices – especially from the front lines. We need social workers to talk to teens, talk to parents, talk to colleagues, talk to schools, and talk to legislators about sleep and school start times. It’s about health, it’s about safety, and it’s about time.
For a good overview of the research visit the websites of the National Sleep Foundation http://www.