‘Sunshine Calls:’ Study shows a simple phone call can help reduce depression, anxiety

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — In a time when social distancing can save lives, it has also forced our most vulnerable population to become more isolated, but a phone call can help brighten a day.

“Even before the pandemic social isolation was a real concern for us,” said Seanna Marceaux with Meals on Wheels Central Texas. “What really helps the soul is that verbal conversation.”

A phone call to say hello, to talk for hours about the weather or just to check up on someone.

“I just enjoy talking,” said 78-year-old Earl Bissett, who has tried to isolate himself during the pandemic.

Earl was a part of “Sunshine Calls“, a four-week program developed in response to the increased physical and social isolation during the pandemic. It is a partnership between Meals on Wheels Central Texas and Factor Health, an initiative of Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin that tests and builds programs at scale to deliver health outside of clinics and hospitals.

Volunteers spent time calling participants to talk about whatever they want.

Mini Kahlon, executive director of Factor Health, says the program used empathy to help those who might be struggling with loneliness or depression.

“You have to prioritize the person you are calling,” Kahlon said. “Everything is about the person at the other end.”

After the first week where participants received a call every day, they then had a choice of how many calls they would receive the following weeks.

“People were deciding what was good for them,” Kahlon said. “We weren’t telling them. They were saying, ‘Oh, OK, I will do two (calls),’ and we also asked them what time of day they wanted to be called. All on their time and we believe this notion of, it is all on your terms, is unbelievably important in making this all work.”

“We talked about 30 minutes a day for the month,” Earl said.

In the end, the study found the calls reduced depression, loneliness and anxiety. Earl said it was a pleasure to connect with the volunteer who called him.

“I enjoyed talking to her because she brightened my day,” Earl said.

Kahlon says they hope to eventually get the program picked up by health insurance companies so even more people can get the help they need.

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