Sleep disorders and bushfires: trial to overcome psychologist shortage

Researchers are seeking bushfire survivors to help trial a new treatment for sleep disturbance.

The cognitive-behavioural clinical trial tests out an online program, called Sleep Best-i, aimed at civilians and emergency responders who have encountered bushfires.

“What we see with people who have faced bushfires in the past is that their sleep gets affected immediately following the bushfire, and it can unfortunately linger for a long time it’s left untreated,” says Fadia Isaac, a clinical psychologist and PhD student at Federation University.

Following bushfires, even people who have the time and will to seek professional help for their sleep can struggle to get it, says Isaac. There just aren’t enough trained psychologists.

“The program that we’re running right now can bridge those gaps. It can be timely, it can be delivered whenever and wherever, and it can cater for the shortage of psychologists who cannot meet the demand of those people at the time of the disaster,” says Isaac.

The trial, which is also supported by Natural Hazards Research Australia, is recruiting volunteers until the end of the year, or until all places in the trial are filled.

Isaac first became interested in an online intervention during the aftermath of the 2019-20 Black Summer bushfires.

“There’s been a lot of work that I’ve done with trauma survivors in my private practice, and given that COVID coincided with that, we needed to be creative. We needed to come up with something that will help people if we cannot be there for them personally and physically.”

Sleep Best-i consists of a series of self-directed online modules, each one focussing on a different aspect of sleep disturbance and proposing evidence-based ways to manage them.

Participants will be given Fitbits to track their sleep habits in the trial.

“They can just enrol in the program and then these modules will be there for them to take. There will be some assessments to be done, which is part of what we do as researchers, but the benefits will be that they will receive a free evidence-based treatment, and they will get to keep their Fitbits,” says Isaac. Participants also get a $100 voucher for joining the trial.

The researchers are hoping to get 30 participants for this phase of the trial: 15 each for a control group and an intervention group.

Isaac is hoping that the trial will prove the program’s efficacy against insomnia, nightmares and trauma symptoms.

“But I guess the bigger message that we’re trying to get from this program is: can we use it on other natural disaster survivors, and can we use it with other trauma survivors? Because sleep is sleep, and it gets affected regardless of what type of trauma you would have in your life,” she says.

“If we can establish some evidence that this is a helpful program then we can definitely use this with a different population to help them sleep.”

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