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How a Phone Call Can Help Offset Pandemic Loneliness and Depression

Man sitting in chair smiling while on the phone

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Key Takeaways

  • COVID-19 has had a major impact on most individuals' mental wellness.
  • A new study shows that verbal conversations grounded in empathy have a positive impact on mental health and loneliness.

For many, the COVID-19 pandemic has been marked by months of loneliness and declining mental health. Due to safety protocols such as shelter-in-place orders, quarantines, and general risk avoidance, many have been forced to spend a majority of their time at home and away from friends and loved ones.

A new study published in JAMA Psychiatry suggests that some of these negative outcomes can be mitigated by a simple phone call.

What Did the Study Show

The randomized clinical trial surveyed 240 adults who received calls from individuals trained in empathy. Researchers utilized the three-item UCLA Loneliness Scale, the De Jong Giervald Loneliness Scale, a Personal Health Questionnaire for Depression, a generalized anxiety disorder scale, and a Short Form Health Survey Questionnaire to collect data from the participants.

The results showed that loneliness, anxiety, and depression were prevalent within the participants, but these outcomes were lowered at the end of the four-week clinical trial period during which they received the calls.

Finding Connection in Isolation

All jokes about this being an introvert's dream aside, research over the past year has shown that the prolonged stress of dealing with the coronavirus fallout has led to a widespread decline in mental health.

Intentional connection, even if limited, can have a positive impact on these feelings. Whether that empathetic ear belongs to a friend, family member, or someone else, experts strongly suggest nurturing, making, and sustaining your relationships during this time, even if the interactions look a little different.

Psychotherapist Haley Neidich, LCSW, says, “One of the other reasons that connection is important is that it normalizes your emotional experience to hear that you're not on your own with challenging emotions; everyone is going through it in their own way right now.”

Neidich says this unprecedented time of social isolation has led to the secondary crisis of worldwide mental-health struggles.

"One of the primary pillars of mental health care, which offers a great deal of resilience, is a sense of connection to others," Neidich says. "Social connection has to be addressed creatively at this time, so a phone call or video chat can really lift your mood and help to prevent or decrease more serious mental health struggles.”

Making Considerate Choices

Many of us are missing in-person connection, but there remain many areas in the country with very high exposure and infection rates. Protocols still suggest wearing masks and maintaining social distancing, and our community members at the highest risk still need our caution until vaccination is more widespread. In light of this, it's important to understand that any kind of connection can be better than nothing.

Neidich says, “The big con of in-person connection right now is our responsibility to make choices for the good of our communities as we do our best to decrease the rate of infection of COVID-19. While there are some great ways to see folks outdoors, any connection that may be unsafe is better off being left to a phone or video call.”

Haley Neidich, LCSW

While in-person contact is always going to offer a greater sense of connection, a phone call also has the capacity to offer a major mood boost and completely shift the course of your thinking.

— Haley Neidich, LCSW

Expand Your Methods of Communication

"While in-person contact is always going to offer a greater sense of connection, a phone call also has the capacity to offer a major mood boost and completely shift the course of your thinking," Neidich says. "Phone calls can be more convenient than sorting out schedules to meet in person, which means that often a phone call is more likely to actually happen."

Neidich recognizes that not everyone is equally comfortable chatting over the phone, and has the following suggestions for folks who may need to ease into it.

Social Media and Texting Are Not the Same as a Call

"Hearing someone's voice and really making an emotional connection is important, both for context and effectiveness," Neidich says, adding that research suggests excessive social media use—even if used for the purpose of support—is correlated with an increase in mental health issues.

Make It a Date!

Neidich suggests making a minimum of two "phone dates" per week with friends or family members, and holding each other accountable to keep the appointment. "Most of my clients who do this report a boost in their mood following the call, which is exactly what folks need to get through this challenging time," she says.

Feel Okay Keeping the Content Light

It can be easy to get bogged down in negativity right now, since most of us are feeling it to some degree. Neidich says that providing support over the phone can be as simple as chatting about a TV show or sharing an inside joke.

"The idea is to build a sense of human connection," she says.

Help Is Available If You Need It

If you're struggling with depression or anxiety and planning to reach out to someone, Neidich says it's important to be sure these conversations are with someone you trust to listen and share without judgment.

If you need more help than what a friend or family member can provide, there are a number of helplines that can connect you to trained professionals.

“There is a reason that support and crisis phone lines exist; talking to someone else not only helps to gain perspective and improve symptoms, it can save your life if you're contemplating suicide," Neidich says.

What This Means For You

Human connection is an important aspect of our mental health, and due to safety protocols, many are struggling to stay connected to others in meaningful ways. The good news is that there are a plethora of options for connection.

Whether or not you and your friends or family generally connect by phone, make some intentional time to reach out so that you can hear each other's voices. Because the end of the pandemic is unforeseen, creating accessible ways of connecting to loved ones is going to continue to be vital.

 

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  1. Kahlon MK, 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 pandemic: a randomized clinical trialJAMA Psychiatry. Published online February 23, 2021. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2021.0113

  2. Seabrook EM, Kern ML, Rickard NS. Social networking sites, depression, and anxiety: a systematic reviewJMIR Ment Health. 2016;3(4):e50. Published 2016 Nov 23. doi:10.2196/mental.5842