The importance of treating insomnia in psychiatric illness


Insomnia rates continue to rise in the setting of the pandemic,1 contributing to increasing rates of depression and anxiety, as well as worsening symptoms of other severe mental illnesses. Data suggests this symptom, defined as chronic sleep onset and/or sleep continuity problems associated with impaired daytime functioning, is common in psychiatric illnesses, and can worsen their course.2

The incidence of psychiatric illness in patients with insomnia is estimated at near 50%, with the highest rates found in mood disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder, as well as anxiety disorders.3 In patients with diagnosed major depressive disorder, insomnia rates can approach 90%.4-6

Dr. Jennifer Reid, board-certified psychiatrist with a private practice in Philadelphia, clinical faculty at the University of Pennsylvania Courtesy Dr. Jennifer Reid

Dr. Jennifer Reid

Insomnia has been identified as a risk factor for development of mental illness, including doubling the risk of major depressive disorder and tripling the risk of any depressive or anxiety disorder.7,8 It can also significantly increase the risk of alcohol abuse and psychosis.8

Sleep disturbances can worsen symptoms of diagnosed mental illness, including substance abuse, mood and psychotic disorders.9-10 In one study, nearly 75% of patients with a diagnosis of schizophrenia or bipolar spectrum disorder had at least one type of sleep disturbance (insomnia, hypersomnia, or delayed sleep phase).10 This was almost twice the rate in healthy controls. Importantly, compared with well-rested subjects with mental illness in this study, sleep-disordered participants had higher rates of negative and depressive symptoms on the Positive and Negative Syndrome Scale, as well as significantly lower function via the global assessment of functioning.11,12

Additional data suggests simply being awake during the night (00:00-05:59) elevates risk of suicide. The mean incident rate of completed suicide in one study was a striking four times the rate noted during daytime hours (06:00-23:59 ) (P < .001).13

Although insomnia symptoms can resolve after relief from a particular life stressor, as many as half of patients with more severe symptoms develop a chronic course.14 This then leads to an extended use of many types of sedative-hypnotics designed and studied primarily for short-term use.15 In a survey reviewing national use of prescription drugs for insomnia, as many as 20% of individuals use a medication to target insomnia in a given month.16

Fortunately, despite the many challenges posed by COVID-19, particularly for those with psychiatric illness and limited access to care, telehealth has become more readily available. Additionally, digital versions of evidence-based treatments specifically for sleep problems, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I), are regularly being developed.

The benefits of CBT-I have been demonstrated repeatedly and it is recommended as the first line treatment for insomnia by the Clinical Guidelines of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Institutes of Health.17-21 Studies suggest benefits persist long-term, even after completing the therapy sessions, which differ in durability from medication choices.18

One group that may be particularly suited for treatment with CBT-I is women with insomnia during pregnancy or the postpartum period. In these women, options for treatment may be limited by risk of medication during breastfeeding, as well as difficulty traveling to a physician’s or therapist’s office to receive psychotherapy. However, two recent studies evaluated the use of digital CBT-I to treat insomnia during pregnancy and in the postpartum period, respectively.22-23

In both studies,the same group of women with insomnia diagnosed during pregnancy were given six weekly 20-minute sessions of digital CBT-I or standard treatment for insomnia, including medication and psychotherapy per their usual provider.

By study end, the pregnant women receiving the CBT-I intervention not only had significantly improved severity of insomnia, they also experienced improved depression and anxiety symptoms, and a decrease in the use of prescription or over-the-counter sleep aides, compared with the standard treatment group, lowering the fetal exposure to medication during pregnancy.22

In the more recent study, the same group was followed for 6 months post partum.23 Results were again notable, with the women who received CBT-I reporting significantly less insomnia, as well as significantly lower rates of probable major depression at 3 and 6 months (18% vs. 4%, 10% vs. 0%, respectively.) They also exhibited lower rates of moderate to severe anxiety (17% vs. 4%) at 3 months, compared with those receiving standard care. With as many as one in seven women suffering from postpartum depression, these findings represent a substantial public health benefit.

In summary, insomnia is a critical area of focus for any provider diagnosing and treating psychiatric illness. Attempts to optimize sleep, whether through CBT-I or other psychotherapy approaches, or evidence-based medications dosed for appropriate lengths and at safe doses, should be a part of most, if not all, clinical encounters.

Dr. Reid is a board-certified psychiatrist and award-winning medical educator with a private practice in Philadelphia, as well as a clinical faculty role at the University of Pennsylvania, also in Philadelphia. She attended medical school at Columbia University, New York, and completed her psychiatry residency at the University of California, Los Angeles. Dr. Reid is a regular contributor to Psychology Today with her blog, “Think Like a Shrink,” and writes and podcasts as The Reflective Doc.


1. Voitsidis P et al. Psychiatry Res. 2020 Jul;289:113076. doi: 10.1016/j.psychres.2020.113076.

2. American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. 5th ed. Arlington, Va.: American Psychiatric Publishing, 2013.

3. Ford DE and Kamerow DB. JAMA. 1989;262(11):1479-84. doi: 10.1001/jama.1989.03430110069030.

4. Ohayon MM and Roth T. J Psychiatr Res. Jan-Feb 2003;37(1):9-15. doi: 10.1016/s0022-3956(02)00052-3.

5. Seow LSE et al. J Ment Health. 2016 Dec;25(6):492-9. doi: 10.3109/09638237.2015.1124390.

6. Thase ME. J Clin Psychiatry. 1999;60 Suppl 17:28-31; discussion 46-8.

7. Baglioni C et al. J Affect Disord. 2011 Dec;135(1-3):10-9. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2011.01.011.

8. Hertenstein E et al. Sleep Med Rev. 2019 Feb;43:96-105. doi: 10.1016/j.smrv.2018.10.006.

9. Brower KJ et al. Medical Hypotheses. 2010;74(5):928-33. doi: 10.1016/j.mehy.2009.10.020.

10. Laskemoen JF et al. Compr Psychiatry. 2019 May;91:6-12. doi: 10.1016/j.comppsych.2019.02.006.

11. Kay SR et al. Schizophr Bull. 1987;13(2):261-76. doi: 10.1093/schbul/13.2.261.

12. Hall R. Psychosomatics. May-Jun 1995;36(3):267-75. doi: 10.1016/S0033-3182(95)71666-8.

13. Perlis ML et al. J Clin Psychiatry. 2016 Jun;77(6):e726-33. doi: 10.4088/JCP.15m10131.

14. Morin CM et al. Arch Intern Med. 2009 Mar 9. doi: 10.1001/archinternmed.2008.610.

15. Cheung J et al. Sleep Med Clin. 2019 Jun;14(2):253-65. doi: 10.1016/j.jsmc.2019.01.006.

16. Bertisch SM et al. Sleep. 2014 Feb 1. doi: 10.5665/sleep.3410.

17. Okajima I et al. Sleep Biol Rhythms. 2010 Nov 28. doi: 10.1111/j.1479-8425.2010.00481.x.

18. Trauer JM et al. Ann Intern Med. 2015 Aug 4. doi: 10.7326/M14-2841.

19. Edinger J et al. J Clin Sleep Med. 2021 Feb 1. doi: 10.5664/jcsm.8986.

20. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

21. National Institutes of Health. Sleep Health.

22. Felder JN et al. JAMA Psychiatry. 2020;77(5):484-92. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2019.4491.

23. Felder JN et al. Sleep. 2022 Feb 14. doi: 10.1093/sleep/zsab280.

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