Loneliness – A Little Attention Makes a Big Difference

Empathetic listening reduces loneliness

Loneliness can be a serious problem, and is a risk factor for several illnesses.  Loneliness is implicated in higher rates of depression and anxiety, and with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, reduced human contact has raised red flags as a potential source of health concerns.  Especially among poorer and more vulnerable populations, loneliness is emerging as an important challenge.

Empathy through phone calls

A study conducted at the University of Texas Austin campus in conjunction with the organization Meals on Wheels Central Texas utilized volunteers to maintain contact with clients identified as being at risk of isolation.  Empathy, or listening to people’s concerns, was the focus of the intervention.  Volunteers were given a short training program in listening and empathy, including the identification of “escalation categories” such as a participant’s concern about safety, food or financial need.  These concerns were reported to the agency, but otherwise the interactions were not recorded.

Volunteers made a phone call daily for the first week at a time chosen by the participant.  After the first week, participants could choose how often they wanted to receive a call, with a minimum of two calls per week.  Most participants chose to continue with five calls per week, with some choosing two or three calls.  Participants filled out pre-intervention and post-intervention checklists related to feelings of loneliness, anxiety and depression as well as a self-reported general health questionnaire.

Reductions in loneliness and anxiety

Significant reductions in loneliness and anxiety were found after a 4-week intervention period, suggesting that with a minimum of training, volunteers could provide empathetic listening and interaction over a phone call that gave a level of satisfaction to isolated people.

The study was small, and raises many questions for further research.  How long will the effect last?  Is four weeks of calling the optimal amount? How strong is the effect on mental health overall?  Nonetheless, the results are suggestive, and certainly point to the importance of empathetic contact, especially for vulnerable or isolated persons.

– Nancy


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. Published online February 23, 2021. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2021.0113

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