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Could a 17-minute phone call with a stranger help cure loneliness? A new app aims to do just that

A psychiatrist believes he has found the answer to loneliness, launching an app which encourages conversations with strangers

Could 17-minute phone calls with strangers end loneliness? A voice on the other end of the line asks you, quite simply, how your day has been and the moments you want to celebrate. They then invite you to tell them about your pain. After that, you talk about the future and a plan you are building for your life and, finally, you share what you are most grateful for. 

Faisal Shaikh, a psychiatrist with two decades of experience in the NHS and private sector, believes this is the answer to ending social isolation. He has designed an app, fittingly called Babble, to connect strangers across the world with each other and help them navigate a 17-minute conversation. 

“We’re creating a link – a connection – between two strangers who are able to witness each other and able to provide some companionship, however brief that is,” Shaikh says. “I believe we are leveraging people’s social skills in a positive way in order to provide companionship in a more meaningful and genuine way than on social media.”

Loneliness is rippling through the country. Over a quarter (26 per cent) of people in the UK over the age of 16 experience loneliness at least some of the time, according to recent government data. That’s about 13.6 million people. People faced isolation in the pandemic and now the cost of living is impacting on people’s social lives.

“I wanted loneliness to be addressed without actually naming it, because there’s a lot of stigma and people struggle to identify it in themselves,” Shaikh remarks. “In my mind, we want to be two steps ahead of the curve. We have to look at finding an antidote for loneliness and preventative measures and creating a social community in the form of Babble was my idea.”

Faisal Shaikh – the psychiatrist trying to cure loneliness. Image: Supplied

Shaikh has drawn on his extensive professional background specialising in social isolation, but he also has deeply personal experiences of loneliness. Twelve years ago, Shaikh’s father, who was living in Pakistan, disappeared after a long battle with mental illness. 

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“In my final year of medical school, I witnessed my father’s mental health drastically deteriorating to an extent that I just began to question how something like that could happen,” Shaikh explains. “How could a person I looked up to vanish or wither away with his anxieties and insecurities and suicidal thoughts? That made me want to go into psychiatry.”

Shaikh became a consultant psychiatrist, and his father’s health took a turn for the worse. “He went missing from our lives after leaving a suicide note,” Shaikh says. “That was a very difficult thing in my life, especially as a mental health professional. I felt that I was completely incompetent, not being able to pick up on it and prevent that from happening. It entirely changed my perspective and outlook on my work as a psychiatrist.

“It began to dawn on me that I don’t actually know anything about these things. I was just beginning to learn about how to empathise and feel what other people are going through because I’ve gone through that pain myself. And that’s precisely what brought me to look at focusing on loneliness as the elephant in the room that was perhaps at the heart of my dad’s deterioration and his mental health problems over the years. Loneliness was also at the heart of many of my patients’ stories.”

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Shaikh admits it can be intimidating having a phone call with a stranger, and the expert team at Babble have worked to build an app which makes the conversation less daunting. There is the oddly specific time of 17 minutes. Through surveys, Sheikh discovered people wanted a time limit to make sure they knew they were only going to be chatting to a stranger for a short amount of time. 

The team also discovered that an effective call ranged anywhere between 15 to 20 minutes – enough time for a meaningful conversation. So Shaikh says it’s just enough time for a chat over a coffee.

They also brought in an acronym to prompt chatter: Happi. H is for: “How was your day?” A is for an advantage, something you celebrate in your day. P is for: “Tell me about your pain” and another P is for: “Tell me about a plan that you’re working on”. The I is for “indices you are grateful for”. 

Babble steers away from issues of sex, politics and religion, which could lead to disagreements. Although the question about pain could be challenging, it is sandwiched between happier and more hopeful subjects. The conversations can go anywhere from there. 

As it stands, Babble will match you with a random stranger – although one day it may be able to tailor the matches based on age and interests. They’ve got to speak English and be over 18, but otherwise Babble could match you with anyone around the world.

“We want to bring in cultural change,” Shaikh says. “One of the premises of this project is that we open up our social skills, so we can make small talk a bit more meaningful and so that we are decent human beings to each other. Babble allows people to be able to express their challenges, express hopes and aspirations in a safe manner that allows them to be vulnerable as well. 

“Contrast this with social media. If someone’s posting on Facebook, they’ll have to fit in and curate what they post based on how they would like to be perceived. It may or may not be genuine or authentic. Babble provides an outlet where people are allowed to be authentic and vulnerable with each other.”

As people struggle with so much darkness in their lives, Babble is a tiny source of hope. Shaikh believes these conversations between strangers could be the key to ending social isolation and so much more, as they build connections and learn about each other. 

“I would take it back to the power of strangers,” Shaikh says. “Communities are essentially composed of strangers, but they become acquainted with each other and become a community. We’re all part of one big community and we need to be brought together. I believe Babble is a perfect platform that allows strangers to come together and be formed in this community which values authenticity, vulnerability, compassion and kindness.”

Babble will launch on December 17. You can find out more here.

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