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Tom Bradby is right: insomnia should be treated with the same seriousness as cancer

Tom Bradby
Insomnia sufferer Tom Bradby Credit: Julian Simmonds

Several months ago, the ITN newsreader Tom Bradby gave an interview about his experience of insomnia. “You don’t know what’s happening,” he said. “You think you are going mad. I got shot in Indonesia in 1999. This was ten times more frightening.” As a fellow sufferer of sleeplessness, this pulled me up short. And his words stayed with me. 

Then on Monday Tom took part in a panel session at the Cheltenham Literature Festival called Insomnia, a Modern Plague. He spoke about how he had needed to take several months off work last year after insomnia left him ‘in crisis’. “The mental health provision in this country is so poor,” he said. “I just wish we got to the stage in this country where mental health conditions are treated with the same seriousness as cancer.” 

No doubt some - soundly sleeping I suspect - members of the public are scoffing disdainfully into their high-caffeine double espressos upon reading this. Either because they think people like myself and Mr Bradby are lightweights, or because they consider a disease like cancer to be of a very different order to a few restless nights.

The first issue first. Tom Bradby is not just a decorative anchorman, but a former foreign reporter with stints on Northern Ireland and the more dangerous parts of Asia. So for him to talk about the devastation of insomnia is highly illuminating. “I have a highly paid job and I can afford to see the best psychiatrist in the country, which I duly did,” he said. “And I saw him every week and that felt like the equivalent of being treated for cancer.”

Tom’s remarks were not sensationalist or attention-seeking. Now, no-one is doubting that cancer is a terribly serious illness that has to be treated with concern and respect. But this also does not mean that insomnia - defined as a difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, even when a person has the chance to do so, leading to fatigue, low energy and mood disturbances, according to the National Sleep Foundation - is a trivial complaint. 

Tom Bradby is a tough old campaigner, both in the field and in his big bed, with his black-out blinds. I’ve also had several battles - a few skirmishes, but also a long war of almost a decade which I only recovered from at the turn of this year. And I’m with you, Tom. It’s hell. The kind that only another sufferer could truly understand. “If you’ve never had a mental health crisis before, you have no idea what one really is and you never imagined it would happen to you,” he says.

But insomnia is not just a mental health condition. There is a lot of evidence that insufficient sleep is linked to a wide variety of physical problems, from obesity to type 2 diabetes and even Alzheimer’s. The reasons were discussed in the May edition of the journal Experimental Psychology, with theories ranging from blood vessels littered with fatty deposits, to ‘cellular garbage’ in the brain. According to the research, people who sleep fewer than seven hours a night have a significantly raised level of molecules called microRNAs, which suppress the protein content of cells and have previously been linked to inflammation and poor blood vessel health.

Harvard Medical School this year published a comprehensive report. It had this cheerful news: “A number of studies have linked sleep deprivation with well-known risk factors for heart disease, including higher cholesterol levels, higher trigliceride levels and higher blood pressure.”

Those Realpolitik critics who say that our stretched NHS budget should be spent on the most serious conditions first should take note: £40 billion is lost just on missed work days through lack of sleep and related lost productivity. Imagine if this was avoided. Imagine how much the health service would save if it didn’t have to treat a sizeable percentage of the public with the above health issues.

Tom Bradby was right when he pointed out that mental health is the poor relation of ‘real’ physical disorders. “People say we are more aware about mental health and we talk about mental health,” he said on Monday. “Well, we’re a bit more aware, and we talk about it a bit more, but not nearly enough.”

The discourse around mental health is a big one. But an open conversation about insomnia - and better treatment of it - will save money, and lives, and a whole lot of misery.

Read Miranda Levy's insomnia blog: talesofaninsomniac.com