The phone call that can help ease loneliness
New research suggests that virtual therapy can have a major effect in only a few months.
When you think about health risks, what comes to mind? Maybe it’s smoking, stress, eating fast food for dinner every night or texting while driving. But there’s another little-known risk that can have just as big a toll on your lifespan: loneliness.
Being lonely isn’t about just a lack of connections with others (also called social isolation). It’s also the feeling of being alone — no matter how much contact you have with the outside world. And it can shorten your life as much as smoking, obesity and physical inactivity.
But new research suggests there may be a simple solution: calling a therapist. All you need is a phone — or a computer with an internet connection.
To understand how this call can alleviate loneliness, it’s useful to understand a little bit more about the condition. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), loneliness is tied to higher rates of depression and anxiety. It’s also linked with a 50% higher risk of dementia and about a 30% higher chance of having heart disease and stroke.
The CDC even notes that people with heart failure who are lonely have a 4 times higher risk of dying than those who aren’t. (If you’re on a medication for heart failure or another chronic disease, grab your free prescription discount card today.)
When you’re lonely, it’s easy to think that you’re the only one on earth who feels that way. But it turns out that loneliness is fairly common. More than one-third of people 45 and older feel lonely, according to the CDC. Experts think that as we age, things such as loss of family and friends, living alone and chronic illness can all play a role.
To study the effect of calling a therapist, researchers from the University of York in England recruited about 100 people age 65 and older who all had long-term health conditions and were considered socially isolated. About half received their usual care from primary care providers. The other half supplemented their care with weekly phone calls with a therapist for 3 months.
The result: Those in the second group reported significantly less loneliness and depression symptoms than those who didn’t have phone calls.
Social media and other apps can be a great way to connect with others. But the researchers suggest that they just can’t beat hearing the voice of another human being. And that’s especially true when you’re talking with a trained therapist who can guide you through your feelings.
Benefits of virtual therapy
One of the major pluses of meeting with a therapist through a video or phone call is, well, skipping the hassle. You may still be avoiding public places due to the pandemic. Or maybe you don't have a good therapist nearby.
“If you’re less mobile, [virtual therapy] is also a great option because getting to appointments may be difficult and could even cause you to skip needed care altogether,” says Nancy Belcher, PhD. She’s the co-founder of Winona, a health and wellness platform, and the head of the King County Medical Society in Seattle.
If you’re feeling uncertain (or even embarrassed) about trying therapy, virtual visits can help ease you in, too. “Virtual therapy allows you to create a safe and comfortable treatment space according to your own preferences,” says Aniko Dunn, PsyD. She’s a psychologist with EZCare Medical Clinic in San Francisco. “For example, you can avoid the awkward and potentially anxious expectations in the waiting room.”
Other benefits of virtual therapy include:
- Consistency. Virtual visits can be easier to schedule (and harder to skip). Regularity is important for creating a trusted relationship with your mental health provider, says Dunn.
- Confidentiality. The more comfortable you are during your session, the more open you’ll likely be.
- Choices. Depending on where you live, you may not have a lot of options for in-person therapists or specialists.
To help people access convenient, affordable care, Optum now offers online mental health treatment through Care on the Optum Store. Best of all, you can switch therapists anytime with no fee.
How virtual therapy works
Unlike talking on the phone with a friend or family member, virtual therapy isn’t about catching up and letting the conversation wander. A therapist can identify potential concerns and help you work through those difficulties in a supported, safe and effective way. (We covered the ins and outs of therapy in more detail here.)
Even though sessions will be over video or phone, you’ll still get the same care as you would in person. In fact, a research review of 15 studies found that telephone and face-to-face therapy hardly differed in how effective they were. Plus, the therapists were just as attentive and empathetic during a call as they were in person.
Facts about loneliness: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Study on the impact of virtual therapy on loneliness: PLOS Medicine (2021). “Behavioural activation to prevent depression and loneliness among socially isolated older people with long-term conditions: The BASIL COVID-19 pilot randomised controlled trial”
Review of in-person vs. virtual therapy: Journal of Affective Disorders (2020). “Are there interactional differences between telephone and face-to-face psychological therapy? A systematic review of comparative studies”