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The value of sleep in maintaining good mental health

Posted on: 10 Oct 2019
Posted by: Helen Pike

Helen Pike, master of Magdalen College School, outlines the work her school is doing to promote good sleep on World Mental Health Day.

‘What we are aiming for today is to be a gold medallist in sleep.’ Sleep therapist Natalie Pennicotte-Collier’s opening gambit to a room full of sixth formers certainly gets their attention. ‘This is the key to the creation of mental wealth,’ she says.

Sleep is the Holy Grail. The success of Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep and a wash of media coverage of the subject underlines this. The days of over-achievers bragging about powering through on four hours’ sleep tops are, thankfully, long gone. Sleep is no longer for wimps. When the going gets tough, the tough know to get their head down.


Sleep is essential for all of us— and particularly for teens, who need more of it than adults. The NHS website recommends 8-10 hours’ sleep for 14-17-year olds, while most of their teachers need just 7-9 on average.


Despite their heroic ability to stay in bed until noon, many teenagers are not routinely getting enough sleep. So to mark World Mental Health Day on 10 October, Magdalen College School (MCS) organised a series of interactive workshops, lectures and activities for sixth form pupils. Under the banner ‘Know your mind (and how to care for it)’, the day began with two lectures on the biology and the psychology of the teenage brain and behaviour, and ended with ‘Sleep 2.0’ with Natalie Pennicotte-Collier. She is a sleep therapist who coaches clients from Team GB athletes to high-powered executives on how to optimise their performance through rest.


Her presentation, ‘Preventing Burnout and Reframing Rest and Recovery,’ is based on science but focuses on strategies for optimal health. ‘I am a sleep therapist,’ she says. ‘Not a sleep scientist. I know we improve performance through sleep.’ In addition to coaching elite athletes, she also visits City firms where executives come armed with their copy of Why We Sleep. It becomes apparent that the Why? might be part of the sleep problem. ‘When you ask most people why they want to improve their sleep, they usually quote some external goal,’ Pennicotte-Collier tells the sixth formers. ‘But what if you become a gold medallist in sleep simply to be your best self?’


Another of the many things which makes the topics of the brain and sleep so fascinating is that these areas remain so comparatively unknown. Here in Oxford, the Teensleep project has started research into whether a later school day start really does improve teenage health and performance, as some have suggested it might. It will also be interesting to see the effect a later start has on teachers.


What we do know is that sleep is vital to mental health. Increasingly, when pupils come to us to talk about their mental health, one of our first questions is: how are they sleeping? It’s so obvious that it’s easy to overlook. And rather than spending another day off timetable fine-tuning study skills, at MCS we decided to go back to the fundaments of peak performance, and a series of workshops offered interactive sessions on a range of topics, including the positive effects of exercise, managing stress, yoga and meditation, cooking to calm, music and mindful meditation, memory – techniques and practices.


All of which, of course, contribute to a good night’s sleep. Pennicotte-Collier encouraged pupils to think about sleep as the foundation of wellbeing, and encouraged them to reframe 'downtime' as 'gold medal time’ which will help them operate at peak performance and improve the way they respond to stress.


Pupils took away a host of practical tips to help promote better sleep habits, including:


  • Set a Constant Wake Time (CWT) to stick to every morning
  • Get outside in natural daylight - aim for half an hour before midday
  • Utilise 'light tech' to get the right light at the right time
  • Stay hydrated
  • Reduce time spent on devices in the evenings, or initiate an automated 'night mode' setting


By taking steps to reduce stress during the day, Pennicotte-Collier reminded pupils they can optimise the sleep they will get that evening and encouraged them to pepper their day with three-minute ‘resilience resets.’


Head of sixth form Colin Pearson summed it up: ‘The aim of the day was to equip our pupils with knowledge and strategies to enable them to look after their own mental health more purposefully. Just as we prioritise physical health, our mental health can be managed and promoted in a similar vein.’


I love sleep. I also love my job, even the nights when I leave the building knowing that I am due back at work in under eight hours’ time. A long bath and a book with an early night is my dream Olympic event. Sleep is one aspect of elite training that we can all get behind.

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About Helen Pike

Helen Pike is master at Magdalen College School in Oxford.