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Empathetic Phone Calls During Pandemic Benefit Recipients’ Mental Health

March 10, 2021

During the COVID-19 pandemic, a month of empathy-focused telephone calls from quickly trained laypeople eased depression, anxiety, and loneliness and improved general mental health in Meals on Wheels recipients, according to a study published online ahead of print in JAMA Psychiatry. 

“The use of lay callers, deliberate but brief approach on training, and the use of ubiquitous telephones made the approach easily deployable and scalable,” researchers wrote.

The study took place during the summer of 2020 and involved 240 clients of Meals on Wheels Central Texas who ranged in age from 27 through 101 years; nearly two-thirds of participants were aged 65 years or older, and more than half lived alone. Participants were randomized to receive calls or no calls for 4 weeks.

Callers were young adults aged 17 to 23 years with 2 hours of training in conversational techniques. For the first 5 days, calls took place daily. Afterward, clients assigned calls could choose to receive them less frequently but at least twice a week.

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After 4 weeks, postassessment score differences between the call intervention/call group and the control/no-call group showed improvements in the call group of 1.1 on the UCLA Loneliness Scale, 0.32 on the De Jong Gierveld Loneliness Scale, 1.5 on the Personal Health Questionnaire for Depression, and 1.8 on the Generalized Anxiety Disorder scale, researchers reported.

Mental health scores on the Short Form Health Questionnaire Survey improved by 2.6 in the intervention group, compared with the control group, according to the study, although general physical health did not change.

In the intervention group, 65% of assessed participants reported being “very satisfied,” and 88% were “somewhat satisfied” or “very satisfied,” with the program.

“Although participants reported a high degree of satisfaction with the calls, we are unable to comment on whether the degree of empathy of callers or duration of conversations affected outcomes,” researchers wrote. “However, all recruited callers were likely to want to serve this population, suggesting a potential factor in replicating these effects.”

—Jolynn Tumolo 


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 trial. JAMA Psychiatry. 2021 February 23;[Epub ahead of print].

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