Rates of drinking were 134 per cent higher and rates of poor sleep were 24 per cent higher among girls compared to boys.
“The way I see it is that both sleep problems and alcohol use are often co-morbid with mental health problems like depression and anxiety,” said lead author Dr Lauren Gardner, research fellow at the Matilda Centre for Research Excellence in Mental Health and Substance Use in the Faculty of Medicine and Health.
“The mental health of teenage girls has worsened during the pandemic. Concerningly, within Australia we’ve seen a sharper increase in self-harm among young females than any other group.”
Director of the Matilda Centre, Professor Maree Teesson, added: “The alcohol use is really bucking the trend here because we’re seeing a decrease in alcohol use generally in young people. It’s super concerning.”
Teesson suggested that the findings were a reflection of girls trying to find ways to cope with their distress.
While sleep disorders are associated with puberty and changes to the brain and circadian rhythms, the combination of poor sleep and increased alcohol use suggested girls were struggling more generally as a result of the pandemic.
Why it is that girls struggle more with mental health is unclear. “In addition to the role of physical health behaviours, like sleep, we also know that girls rely heavily on social networks for support, which were significantly disrupted during the pandemic,” Gardner said. “It is possible that this has disproportionately impacted them … but it is a complex area and more research is needed.”
Though poor mental health may explain the behaviours, the behaviours also beget poor mental health.
Insufficient sleep increases the risk of poor diet and mental ill-health, while the earlier teens start drinking the more at risk they are later in life of developing alcohol use disorders.
“Poor coping mechanisms leave you at higher risk of anxiety and depression,” Teesson said.
For these reasons, addressing the Big 6 health behaviours of Australian adolescents is vital.
“There is an urgent need to understand how we can best support young Australians to improve their physical and mental health trajectories,” Gardner said.
Teesson said young people “really bore the brunt” of the pandemic’s social consequences to protect the health of older Australians, she says, and they now needed strategies to help them come off risky behaviours picked up under stress. “Switching off the pandemic doesn’t switch off these lifestyle and health consequences,” Teesson said.
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