Over 100 North East and North Cumbria research participants contribute to key findings on how to combat loneliness and depression in locally led study
Over 100 local people took part in a key study which shows that depression and loneliness can be prevented using structured telephone-based psychological care, delivered over 8 weeks.
The results of the study showed that mental health and quality of life rapidly improved when older people received weekly phone calls from a specially trained coach who encouraged them to maintain their social connections and to remain active.
The study, which was funded by the National Institute of Health and Care Research (NIHR) and led by a team based at the University of York and Hull York Medical School and at Tees, Esk and Wear Valleys NHS Foundation Trust, found levels of depression reduced significantly and the benefits were greater than those seen for antidepressants.
Participants in the study reported their levels of emotional loneliness fell by 21% over a three-month period and the benefits remained after the phone calls had ceased, suggesting a lasting impact.
The Behavioural Activation in Social Isolation (BASIL+) trial started within months of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic and was the largest trial ever undertaken to target and measure loneliness in this way. The study, published in the medical journal The Lancet [Healthy Longevity], is a big step towards understanding what works in preventing loneliness.
People invited to take part in the BASIL+ study were aged over 65 with multiple long-term conditions. They had been asked to shield during the pandemic and were at a high risk of loneliness and depression.
The BASIL+ trial was supported by a £2.6M award from the NIHR and was the only mental health trial prioritised by the NHS as part of its ‘Urgent Public Health’ programme in the fight against COVID. Hundreds of older people were recruited to the BASIL+ trial from 26 sites across the UK, including 117 people from the North East and North Cumbria region.
Politicians and policy makers have become more aware of the importance of loneliness, but have struggled to know what works to prevent it. The World Health Organization has recently declared loneliness to be a ‘Global Health concern’ and has launched an international commission to address it. It is anticipated that the results of the BASIL+ trial will feed into this process.
The research was jointly led by Professor Simon Gilbody from the University of York and Hull York Medical School and Professor David Ekers from Tees, Esk and Wear Valleys NHS Foundation Trust. Professor Gilbody said: “We now know that loneliness is as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and depression is a silent killer. All of us working on the BASIL+ trial had older parents and relatives who became socially isolated during lockdown.”
“Based on our previous research, we had a good idea what might work”, Professor Ekers added. “With the support of the NHS and the NIHR, we were able to test this in a large rigorous trial. The results are now available and this is very exciting. The UK led the world with the vaccine discovery trials. Similarly in mental health, we have advanced the science of ‘what works’ in the area of loneliness, and we have learned much from the dark days of the pandemic.”
Dr Liz Littlewood, the BASIL+ trial manager from the Department of Health Sciences, University of York, added: “This is what the UK does well and it shows how the NHS, universities and third sector organisations were able to work in partnership during the pandemic to tackle the big health challenges.”
Professor Caroline Wroe, Clinical Director of the NIHR Clinical Research Network North East and North Cumbria, said: “It is estimated that over 9 million people in the UK are affected by loneliness. These are important research findings and I am proud that so many people from the North East and North Cumbria and beyond were able to take part in the study and experience the benefits of it. Thank you to everybody who made this study a success, from research participants and public contributors, to staff.”
Professor Lucy Chappell, Chief Executive Officer of the NIHR, said: "These results are an important step forward in understanding what works in tackling and preventing loneliness and depression. The research is also a great example of how public money allows researchers, healthcare professionals and the public to work together across institutions and organisations to deliver results that will really make a difference to people's health and wellbeing."
The BASIL+ partnership included leading researchers from the Universities of Leeds, Keele, and Manchester and also the charity AgeUK.