A new study published in JAMA Psychiatry Trusted Source found that a phone call programme delivered by laypeople could minimize feelings of isolation, depression, and anxiety. Within four weeks, the study participants' overall mental health had improved as well.
For the first five days, each caller spoke with between 6 and 9 participants every day.
Because of COVID-19 limitations and enforced physical distancing to avoid virus transmission, many of us have suffered from feelings of alienation and loneliness over the past year.
Many people have experienced feelings of loneliness and distress as a result of this.
New research published in JAMA Psychiatry found that a layperson-delivered, empathy-oriented telephone call programme could minimise feelings of depression and anxiety in study participants within four weeks, while also enhancing their overall mental health.
corresponding author Maninder K. Kahlon, PhD, associate professor in the department of population health at the University of Texas at Austin, told Healthline, "We were already collaborating with Meals on Wheels of Central Texas, and when COVID-19 hit, we realised the increased mental health needs of their participants."
Kahlon said her team quickly devised a programme and rigorously reviewed it to ensure that changes were visible on "clinically important scales."
She stressed, "We wanted to prove to ourselves that the intervention has the results we suspected."
Participants in the study were homebound and faced food insecurity.
Researchers recruited and followed up with 240 adults who were randomly assigned to receive calls or not receive calls from July 6 to September 24, 2020. (the control group). They ranged in age from 27 to 101, with more than half of them being 65 or older.
Loneliness, depression, and anxiety levels were assessed at the start of the study and again four weeks later.
Analyses with the intent to treat were carried out. Calls were made to participants in their homes or wherever they were at the time.
Clients of Meals on Wheels in Central Texas who met their service requirements, which included being homebound and demonstrating a nutritional need, were included in the report.
Prior to the study, the callers were specialised in empathetic conversational strategies and were between the ages of 17 and 23.
For the first five days, each caller called between 6 and 8 participants daily; after that, participants may choose to reduce the frequency to no less than 2 calls per week.
The software, dubbed "Sunshine Calls," was created by Factor Health, a joint project at the University of Texas at Austin, as a randomised control trial (RCT).
Around half of the participants were single, and all of them had at least one chronic health condition.
According to the results, call recipients showed an average increase of over 1 point on a 7-point standard scale in feelings of isolation, relative to those who were not called, a 16 per cent difference.
The number of participants who felt at least mildly anxious at the start of the study fell by 37% by the end, while those who felt at least mildly depressed fell by 25%.
“Callers were taught to put the individual on the other end of the line first. Listen to them, and pay attention to the hints they gave about their desires in their conversation,” Kahlon said. “If anyone mentioned their aunt casually, the caller will go back to it and pull on the thread, and normally there's a storey there waiting to be told!”
Calls have the potential to improve wellbeing.
The results of the study shocked Kahlon, she said.
“We hypothesised that by making people relate meaningfully to participants, we might reduce isolation. The degree of change delighted us,” she said.
“However, the major effects on depression and anxiety shocked us,” she said.
These are two major health issues, according to Kahlon, particularly given the impact that both mental states have on "broader mental health scales."
She also thinks this initiative has a lot of potential for improving people's health in general.
However, one of the study's main limitations is that it's unclear if the effects can be maintained for more than four weeks, according to the study.
Future research should look at whether changes are not only sustainable but also improved with longer implementation, according to the report.
Reaching out will aid in the reduction of anxiety and isolation
Dr David Roane, chair of psychiatry at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, said, "I think the relationship between isolation and wellbeing is a very complex relationship, and any number of factors... may be involved."
People who aren't attached to anyone have less desire to look after themselves, don't have someone to help them or watch over them to make sure they're eating and sleeping properly, and "don't necessarily have standardised routines," according to him.
Roane clarified that loneliness has a direct impact on physiology and can have a direct impact on medical health.
Kahlon believes that services like "Sunshine Calls" will help to alleviate a mental health professional shortage.
“At scale, we will fix mental health,” she said. “Loneliness does not have to be ignored, and depression and anxiety can be treated without being hampered by a scarcity of mental health professionals.”
“The health system should pay for whatever achieves outcomes, including projects like this one,” she concluded.
Reaching out can be fruitful.
“Well, I think the research here is really focusing on some interesting ideas,” Roane said. “The focus on reaching out to people through technology, such as the phone or Zoom, and reconnecting with friends and relatives who haven't been in contact in a long time.”
“Reaching out can also be very rewarding,” he said, emphasising that people are eager to learn from others.
Roane went on to say that long-distance communication should be done on a daily basis to reap the most benefits.
“So, if you have a friend or relative who is especially lonely, a daily scheduled call could actually be a fantastic idea,” he said. “It doesn't have to be every day; it could be on a Saturday or Sunday or whatever the person trying to reach out prefers.”
Setting and sustaining a pattern of scheduled calls, according to Roane, is crucial.
“I believe that knowing that they should expect social interaction could be very beneficial for the alienated individual,” he said.
Last but not least
According to new research, making frequent "empathetic calls" to isolated people can help them feel less lonely and anxious, as well as improve their overall health.
Experts agree that reaching out online to friends and family who are separated by physical barriers is a good idea, but that communication should be maintained on a daily basis for the best results.
Experts also believe that calling services will help solve a lack of mental health professionals who can assist individuals who are lonely or anxious at home.