Online CBT for insomnia may improve mental health in young adults

Treating insomnia with online cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) could reduce mental health problems such as anxiety, depression and paranoia, according to a new Wellcome-funded study. 

Tired young woman in headphones on her computer

Credit: Steinar Engeland/Unsplash

This research, involving 3,755 UK students, is thought to be the largest ever randomised controlled trial of a psychological treatment for mental health.

The study, by researchers at the Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute, University of Oxford, found that sleep disruption is a driving factor in the occurrence of paranoia, hallucinatory experiences, and other mental health problems in young adults.

How the research was done

The aim was to improve participants' sleep to determine its effect on mental health problems such as paranoia, anxiety and depression.

The researchers randomised 3,755 university students from across the UK with an average age of 25 into two groups. One group received six 20-minute sessions of online CBT for insomnia. The other group didn't have online CBT but did have access to standard treatments.

The researchers monitored participants’ mental health through online questionnaires at 0, 3, 10 (post treatment) and 22 weeks from the start of the treatment. 

What the research shows

Individuals who received the CBT sleep treatment showed large reductions in insomnia, as well as small, sustained reductions in paranoia and hallucinatory experiences.

The treatment led to improvements in depression, anxiety, nightmares, psychological wellbeing, and daytime work and home functioning. 

Why this research is important

This is thought to be the largest ever randomised controlled trial of a psychological treatment for mental health, and the first study large enough to determine the effects of treating insomnia on psychotic experiences. 

Daniel Freeman, the study lead and Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Oxford and Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust, says: "Sleep problems are very common in people with mental health disorders, but for too long insomnia has been trivialised as merely a symptom, rather than a cause, of psychological difficulties.

"This study turns that old idea on its head, showing that insomnia may actually be a contributory cause of mental health problems. A good night’s sleep really can make a difference to people’s psychological health."

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