Smartphone befriending scheme can improve the lives of people living with psychosis, new pilot study has found

Regularly texting or calling a volunteer ‘befriender’ can improve considerably the lives of people experiencing psychosis, a new study has found.  So-called befriending schemes – where someone with a severe mental illness can contact a volunteer that is trained to support them – have traditionally relied on face-to-face meetings.

But people with severe mental illness, including psychosis, who on occasions can be detached from reality and are frequently socially isolated, can struggle to keep plans and make and maintain friendships.  Under an innovative new scheme, called Phone Pal, patients are encouraged to use technology on a weekly basis to get around this.

It found that it is feasible for people with psychosis to get in contact with a volunteer by using a smartphone to send texts or make calls, making the patient feel more connected, less isolated and more confident to build friendships – potentially improving their mental health.

The preliminary findings of the study, which will be presented at the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ International Congress, have received support from clinicians working in the NHS, suggesting that Phone Pal could be used as a new social prescribing intervention.

Dr Mariana Pinto da Costa, lead researcher of the pilot study, said: “Technology provides us with new ways to give support to patients living with severe mental illnesses.  We found that younger patients with fewer years of diagnosis were more likely to be interested in this study, which suggests technology could play an increasing role in improving the lives of people living with psychosis.  These encouraging results suggest that volunteering through smartphones could be considered as a social prescribing intervention in the future.”

The researchers, from Queen Mary University London, paired 18 patients from East London NHS Foundation Trust with 18 volunteers – who were given training and support – from different cities in the UK.

Clinicians suggested Phone Pal to some of their most isolated patients and found they were more socially connected and less lonely than they were before being connected with a volunteer.  In most cases communication took place more than once a week and many of the pairings have decided to keep in contact after the study by sharing their personal numbers.

The study, which started in 2018, paves the way for a randomised control trial – the gold standard for measuring the effectiveness of an intervention.

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