Research published in the journal Sleep is the first to demonstrate an association between treatment of insomnia and reduction of suicidal thoughts in veterans.

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More than half of veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan report symptoms of insomnia.

According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM), more than half of veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan report symptoms of insomnia.

Between 15% and 20% of adults have short-term insomnia and about 10% of people have chronic insomnia disorder, report the AASM. Chronic insomnia is a sleep disturbance with associated symptoms in the daytime that has persisted for at least 3 months.

“Chronic insomnia is especially common among veterans who have put their lives at risk in service to our country,” says AASM President Dr. Timothy Morgenthaler.

“This study emphasizes that effectively treating insomnia can be life-changing and potentially life-saving for veterans who may be struggling with problems such as depression, suicidal thoughts and post-traumatic stress disorder,” he adds.

The study authors evaluated 405 veterans who had been diagnosed with insomnia disorder and who had received cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I).

The participants were mostly male with a mean patient age of 52 years. Around 83% of the veterans had experienced conflict; 150 had served in Vietnam and 83 had served in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Results show that in addition to improving insomnia symptoms, CBT-I was also associated with reducing suicidal thoughts and depression symptoms and improving quality of life among the veterans.

The study reports that up to six sessions of CBT-I were associated with a 33% decrease in suicidal ideation. Also, insomnia severity decreased concurrently with odds of suicidal ideation.

The authors say that this association remained significant after controlling for depression severity and other potential confounding factors.

Co-lead author Bradley Karlin, PhD, who served as national mental health director for psychotherapy and psychogeriatrics in the US Department of Veterans Affairs Central Office at the time the evaluation was conducted, says:

It was striking to see that the reduction in insomnia severity was associated with reduced suicidal ideation even after controlling for improvement in depression severity. The results suggest that effective treatment of insomnia with CBT-I is an important target for reducing suicide risk among veterans and others at risk for suicide.”

Karlin says the results show that focusing greater attention on detecting and treating insomnia could also “produce substantial public health benefits.”

In 2013, Medical News Today reported on another study published in Sleep that found military personnel who have severe sleeping problems before being deployed are at increased risk for developing anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) when they return home.

In that study, the researchers found that even sleeping less than 6 each hours each night – which is not classified as general insomnia – was associated with an increased risk of PTSD.

Another 2013 study published in Sleep also found a high prevalence of sleep disorders and short sleep duration among active duty military personnel. Researchers were startled to find that 85.1% of participants had a clinical sleep disorder, with obstructive sleep apnea being the most frequent disorder (51.2% of participants), followed by insomnia (24.7%).