A recent study published in The Lancet demonstrated the beneficial effects of sleep disorder treatment upon individuals’ mental health. Conducted by researchers at Oxford University, this study employed an online cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) to treat insomnia in subjects. After completing CBT, subjects saw not only a sustained reduction in sleep disruption but also a significant decrease in symptoms of mental illness such as depression, anxiety, and paranoia.
For the study, the researchers’ goals were twofold: first, to reduce the incidence of insomnia (the most common form of sleep disruption), and then to determine if the improvement in sleep quality treated mental health conditions typically associated with insomnia. Approximately 1,800 U.K. students, predominately females in their first year of university studies, underwent six 20-minute sessions of online CBT accessible from their own homes. A similarly-profiled control group had access to standard treatments for insomnia.
The investigators monitored each subject’s condition through questionnaires administered at several different instances following the therapy sessions, including a final questionnaire at 22 weeks from the start of treatment. The study found that not only was CBT quite effective at reducing insomnia, but the subjects also reported reductions in paranoia and hallucinations as well as improvements in depression and anxiety. Researchers were able to conclude, based on the data available, that sleep improvements accounted for nearly 60 percent of the change in paranoia.
Exploring Cause and Effect in Insomnia
The scientific community’s understanding of the relationship between insomnia and mental health has expanded in recent years. Insomnia and other sleep disturbances were once thought to be simply the consequences of mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, paranoia, and hallucinations.
“Sleep problems are very common in people with mental health disorders, but for too long insomnia has been trivialized as merely a symptom, rather than a cause, of psychological difficulties,” lead author Daniel Freeman told Reuters.
New research has shown that, on the contrary, sleep disorders can also have a causal effect upon these mental health issues.
A 2015 study published in SLEEP acknowledged that the transition from acute to chronic insomnia is a critical moment in an individual’s risk of developing depression. The study was designed to address acute insomnia (characterized by less than three months of symptoms) before it could progress to chronic insomnia, employing a similar method to the study in The Lancet. Among subjects in the SLEEP study who underwent a single 60-minute session of CBT, nearly 75 percent experienced improvement in sleep quality as compared to the control group. Upon learning of the success of the CBT after the study completed, 70 percent of the control group requested to receive the same treatment.
The authors of the Lancet study suggest that it may be worthwhile to focus treatment of insomnia and other sleep disruptions as a way to reduce the incidence and severity of mental illness among affected populations.
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