Insomniacs are helped by online therapy, study finds

Dale Love-Callon, who used automated online therapy to help alleviate her insomnia, at home in Rancho Palos Verdes on Nov 29, 2016.
Dale Love-Callon, who used automated online therapy to help alleviate her insomnia, at home in Rancho Palos Verdes on Nov 29, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - In a new study, researchers found that more than half of chronic insomniacs who used an automated online therapy programme reported improvement within weeks and were sleeping normally a year later.

The report, published Wednesday in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, is the most comprehensive to date suggesting that many garden-variety insomniacs could benefit from the gold standard treatment - cognitive behaviour therapy - without ever having to talk to a therapist.

In the study, led by researchers at the University of Virginia, doctors recruited 303 people ages 21 to 65 over the internet. Half were randomly assigned to receive education and advice on insomnia - a digital "placebo," of sorts, in that such advice often helps people sleep better.

The other half got a six-week focused online therapy product, called SHUTi.

Some of the researchers, as well as the university, have a stake in this product, which costs US$135 for 16 weeks of access. None of those connected to the company analysed the data or had access to it, or participated in the data analysis, said Lee Ritterband, the lead author and a developer of the online therapy.

The research team tracked the participants, assessing their sleep quality every several months, using standardised questionnaires. After a year, 57 per cent of the people using the online therapy programme were sleeping normally, compared with 27 per cent of those who had gotten only advice and education.

SHUTi is not the only digital insomnia therapy product on the market. Sleepio, which costs US$300 for a year's access, and is offered by a London-based company, also incorporates cognitive therapy. And it was also found in a randomised study to have good results.

Both incorporate the techniques of cognitive behaviour therapy for insomnia, an approach therapists have been using successfully for years. Some of those techniques date back decades.

One is called sleep restriction, in which people set a regular "sleep window" and work to stick to it. Another is called stimulus control, an attempt to break the association between lying in bed and activities like streaming video and eating.

The programme prompts people to log in daily and record each night's sleep in some detail; it then tailors weekly sessions based on those entries.

At least one in 10 adults has diagnosable insomnia, which is defined as broken, irregular, inadequate slumber at least three nights a week for three months running or longer.