Research: The power of a single phone call

When you’re having a bad day, does a phone call from a loved one improve your mood and outlook on life? If so, you’re not alone. New research from the University of Texas at Austin shows that a single daily phone call, even from a stranger, can alleviate feelings of depression and anxiety for people experiencing isolation. 

The researchers collaborated with Meals on Wheels of Central Texas to examine how simple outreach strategies could improve the lives of those living alone. They used the isolation of the pandemic as the perfect setting for their phone connection experiment. The researchers recruited 240 adults and placed them in the daily phone call group or the control group. The participants ranged in age from 27 to 101, but more than half were over 65 years old. 

The researchers then had volunteers between 17 and 23 years old make phone calls to the participants. Callers were trained in empathetic conversational techniques and had to place at least two calls a week to each of their assigned participants. 

The researchers measured mental health indicators before and after the study and found that those who received calls reported, on average, a 16 percent decrease in loneliness measures. The number experiencing anxiety also dropped 37 percent by the end of the study and the number that were at least mildly depressed dropped by 25 percent.

The study demonstrates that what the researchers called “sunshine calls”: short, frequent, check-ins with those in isolation, can have a significant impact on mental health and wellbeing. Something as simple as a phone call can be a breath of fresh air for a relative or friend living alone right now. It’s also informative for public health initiatives. Setting up a volunteer-run phone call outreach program could be an affordable and easy way to check in on some of society’s most vulnerable.

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