Interpersonal Trust as a Protective Factor for Mental Health

At what point do we stop making time for something as essential as connecting with each other?


Most of all, in childhood and adolescence (as well as in adulthood), as humans we need to feel heard and included for good emotional development and to be able to self-regulate – photo: Shutterstock, licence: CC

Article from the Novasalud journal, 2020 edition – Novasalud is a center dedicated to providing specialized services in mental health and addiction through a multidisciplinary team

By Andrea Donaire, Ontological Coach – As human beings in the modern world, we are so focused on producing that we have turned almost exclusively to doing, immersed in what the philosopher Byung-Chul Han calls ‘The Burnout Society’. We are living alongside an incessant demand for doing well, something that has become much more important than simply being well. In our day to day lives, spaces of contemplation and introspection have become scarce. We generally consider pauses and silences as something unproductive, even uncomfortable, or as luxuries that are very difficult to obtain.

And from there, spaces of genuine connection with other human beings are also rendered short-lived or scarce.

At what point do we stop making time for something as essential as connecting with each other?

Mental health is deteriorating at an alarming rate, especially in children and young people. Today, suicide is the second leading cause of death among people aged between 15 and 29 years, according to the WHO. And, for every death from self-inflicted injury, there are an estimated 20 attempted suicides and about 50 people with suicidal ideation.

I have been volunteering for over a year in a programme run by the foundation Todo Mejora, (It Gets Better), which is dedicated to suicide prevention.

This is the ‘Safe Hour’ (la hora segura), a programme where a group of volunteers participate in a chatroom and speak to people who need to talk about what is happening to them. Many of them are considering suicide as an option or have already attempted it, some have psychiatric diagnoses, and many have not received any attention at all (neither professional nor from their immediate environment). Something that transverses the users exhibiting suicidal behaviour is a profound sense of loneliness, and the feeling of being a burden to others.


Quotes from users

“It really hurts me that my parents believe that, with food, clothes, a house, material things, I am happy.” Girl, 17 years old.

“… and my mother, but I feel that if I tell her about this, she will suffer a lot, she has told me that nerves and stress have been killing her lately.” Girl, 12 years old.

“The fact is that I matured very quickly, I did everything myself. So, I save all my things, as if I’ve become familiar with not being looked after, and when I’m asked things, I don’t like talking about them.” Girl, 13 years old.

Most of all, in childhood and adolescence (as well as in adulthood), as humans we need to feel heard and included for good emotional development and to be able to self-regulate, to face conflicts appropriately, and to have healthy self-esteem. However, today’s adults are not able to listen or adequately include others (possibly because many of us ourselves were not included in important stages either). We are less and less able to teach the youngest among us to do so, and this is having catastrophic consequences on our mental health.

Our brain is simply not prepared for life at such speeds, or for the vast amount of information that we are exposed to daily. We are not managing to filter and focus on what is really important.

And approaching this crisis solely from the palliative perspective of health is not enough.

What can we do then?

There is evidence to suggest that social support is a protective factor against depression and alleviates symptoms of depression (Cruwys et al., 2013), and that it also has a positive influence on physical health (Uchino, 2009). This can be explained neurobiologically, because interpersonal trust and empathy are related to production of the neurotransmitter and hormone oxytocin (Zak, 2005; Barraza & Zak, 2013). Oxytocin can reduce levels of cortisol, one of the hormones associated with our response to stress and depression (McQuaid et al, 2014).

However, little has been done to enhance interpersonal trust as a protective and enhancing factor for people’s well-being.

What I want to raise is the need to extend the approach to this crisis beyond the limits of the professional field, because there is a lot that we, who are not mental health professionals, can do. This has to do with our ability to create relationships of trust with those around us.


To do so, we can make small, daily changes that gradually strengthen this trust and allow our close ones to feel that there is a safe space in us where they can share their problems.

We can also allow ourselves to be vulnerable, by sharing what happens to us honestly with someone we know will welcome us with empathy, and by asking for help, to set the example that we all go through bad times.

We can question and reject the belief that we must be able to cope with everything, and look around us; there is always someone who can give us a helping hand. And someone could receive a hand from us in return.

We can take time to ask and listen openly, without judging or discrediting the other person’s feelings. Stop thinking that if they say they feel bad, it is because they are attention seeking, and give them space for compassion.

We can also congratulate and celebrate with people who are close to us when things are going well and be happy for their achievements.

All this, of course, is born from an individual transformation. We first need to learn to stop and look at what is happening to us, to accept and connect with our own emotions (especially the unpleasant ones that we are constantly running from), and from there we can sit together with the pain and the love of another.

Even if we have only a short time, we can always put our phones aside for a few minutes and be truly present. Something so simple can make a great difference.

What are you going to do today?