A phone call may be all it takes to ease pandemic loneliness: study

TORONTO — Give your friends and family a call, it may just ease the pandemic loneliness, depression and anxiety that are taking hold.

A study published in the peer-reviewed journal JAMA Psychiatry suggests that phone calls can help people who are left feeling alone and isolated during the pandemic, no training required.

The study aimed to quickly address the issue of loneliness during the pandemic and focused on socially isolated adults who used Meals on Wheels in Texas. Researchers put together a team of young volunteers to call Meals on Wheels clients.

The 16 volunteers, aged 17 to 23, were provided one hour of training with a focus on empathy via video conference. They were given additional resources like videos and handouts that would constitute another hour of training. No degrees or special certification were required for the role. Callers were instructed to focus on listening and guiding conversations to topics the clients enjoyed. The volunteers were told to aim to keep the calls 10 minutes or shorter, but no time constraints were applied.

The phone call recipients in the study were predominantly single adults living alone who were unable to leave their homes during the pandemic.

Researchers found that, over the course of the four-week study, those in the intervention group reported less loneliness and that anxiety and depression levels had improved based on various scales used to determine levels of loneliness, anxiety and depression completed by the participants throughout the study. Study participants ranged in age from 27 to 101 years old, with 63 per cent being over the age of 65. More than half of the participants were living alone and nearly 80 per cent were women. All of the people who participated in the study reported at least one chronic condition.

Caller volunteers were instructed to call participants on five days in the first week, after which participants were able to decide how many calls they wanted to receive. Nearly 60 per cent chose to continue with five calls per week for the remaining three weeks of the study.

By using callers who aren’t professionally trained in psychology or counselling, researchers found that their approach was easy to deploy and scale.

There have been few solutions to the problem of loneliness, and they often rely on trained individuals to provide different forms of therapy, whether over the phone, video conference or in person. This new study provides some hope that loneliness, and its negative side effects, can be more easily dealt with than previously thought.

While the study yielded positive results, the researchers say that more research is required to see how long the benefits of these types of phone calls last.

For now, it couldn’t hurt to pick up the phone and reach out to someone who may be feeling alone and isolated.

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