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A Phone Call a Day Can Reduce COVID-19 Loneliness

Older man on the phone.

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Key Takeaways

  • A new program found that regular phone calls improved the mental health of adults who are at increased risk for loneliness, anxiety, and depression.
  • The people who made the calls were given minimal training in empathetic listening and were assigned to make regular calls each week to adults who were clients of a Meals on Wheels program.
  • The improvements in depression, anxiety, and loneliness were significant even though the test program lasted only four weeks.

A phone call a day can go a long way in soothing feelings of loneliness. A new program, called Sunshine Calls, aims to help adults who've been struggling with isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Researchers at the Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin developed a program facilitating regular phone calls between a trained caller and primarily older adults who depend on the Meals on Wheels Central Texas (MOWCTX) program.

Their study found that short, daily phone calls from trained callers can help reduce loneliness, depression, and anxiety, lead study author Maninder K. Kahlon, PhD, vice dean for health ecosystems and associate professor in population health at Dell Medical School, tells Verywell.

For the program, sixteen callers—or what Kahlon refers to as laypeople— who are not mental health professionals, underwent brief training in empathetic conversational techniques. Each called participants over four weeks daily for the first five days, after which clients could choose to drop down to fewer calls but no less than two calls a week.

“We got significant results in four weeks with guided layperson-delivered telephone calls,” Kahlon says. “These are things we struggle with in health care to get right.” Kahlon is also director of Factor Health, a program at Dell that builds projects to improve health and investigate whether those projects work. Sunshine Calls was created at Factor Health. The February study was published in JAMA Psychiatry.

What This Means For You

If you've been struggling with isolation and loneliness due to COVID-19, try calling a friend or family member regularly. Talking to someone every day or often throughout the week can help you feel connected despite the physical distance.

Regular Phone Calls Reduced Anxiety and Depression

The study recruited 16 callers who ranged in age from 17 to 23 years old and gave them a limited amount of training through a one-hour videoconference session, handouts, and videotaped instructions.

Kahlon noted that the callers were self-selected and were all “authentically and pretty passionately” interested in supporting the community. “This was much more about the connection and not just someone calling to check-in," Kahlon says. "Someone calling who is interested in you and is not a random thing.”

The 240 participants recruited from Meals on Wheels Central Texas were aged 27 to 101 years, with 63% aged at least 65 years and 56% living alone. All reported having at least one chronic condition.

Half were assigned to the intervention group who received phone calls and half were assigned to the control group who did not. The calls were planned to be less than 10 minutes long, but there was no time limit set on them and callers said they sometimes ran longer.

After the first week, participants could choose to have as few as two calls a week. Fifty-eight percent of the participants chose to continue receiving five calls a week.

Both groups were evaluated using standard tests to measure loneliness, depression, and anxiety. The intervention group showed improvement in measures of loneliness, depression, anxiety, and general mental health compared to the control group.

Participants who felt at least mildly anxious at the beginning of the program dropped by 37% and those who reported being at least mildly depressed dropped by 25%.

MOWCTX provided a list of issues that would require further follow-up if the participants brought them up. Callers were instructed to contact MOWCTX if participants talked about safety, food concerns, or financial problems.

Loneliness Exacerbated by COVID-19

This study was conducted during the pandemic because mental health issues were expected to worsen during the outbreak’s duration, Kahlon says. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, one in three adults are reporting that they are experiencing depression or anxiety during the pandemic. This is up from one in 10 who reported such problems prior to the pandemic.

“We were driven by the COVID context,” Kahlon says. “What we were surprised about is not only the degree of effect on loneliness but also the impact on standard and important mental health issues like depression and anxiety.”

Loneliness is a risk factor for many clinical conditions but there are few large-scale intervention programs. Typically, feelings of loneliness are treated with the help of mental health counselors.

There are few interventions that have been shown to be effective in helping people with loneliness, depression, and anxiety, Kahlon says. There are insufficient mental health professionals to meet demand, she says, adding that in many places psychiatrists won’t take health insurance and few accept Medicaid.

“We are facing a huge mental health challenge," she says. "We have a limited toolbox and a big problem."

Looking Ahead

A program like Sunshine Calls “offers a great opportunity to start thinking differently about how we deliver the kinds of effective health solutions,” Kahlon says.

Church congregations or other community groups could train callers and run similar phone call programs for people at risk. “We welcome any such program to get in touch,” she adds.

According to Kahlon, the best scenario is to get health insurance companies to see the benefits of these types of programs and cover them in their policies. “Our next step is to develop this program as a disciplined health program and, ideally, get healthcare insurance to pay for it if we continue to demonstrate results," Kahlon says.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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  1. Kahlon M, Aksan N, Aubrey R et al. Effect of layperson-delivered, empathy-focused program of telephone calls on loneliness, depression, and anxiety among adults during the COVID-19 pandemicJAMA Psychiatry. 2021. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2021.0113

  2. Panchal K, Kamal R, Cox C, et al. The Implications of COVID-19 for Mental Health and Substance Use. Kaiser Family Foundation. February 10, 2021.