What makes mental health such a ‘dirty word’ in Costa Rica?

For this month’s Daily Boost focus on mental health, I knew I had lots of questions for Cris Gomar. I’ve written before about the founder of Vaso Lleno, a mental health initiative that encourages people in Costa Rica to open up and share their stories without fear of judgment, and how quickly she’d impressed me with her honesty and enthusiasm. This time around, however, I gave her the third degree. What I wanted to know, more than anything, was what she had learned from her work with Vaso Lleno about why mental health is such a challenge for infamously “happy” Costa Rica.

Here’s what she had to say. Excerpts follow.

Costa Rica has received tons of international attention as “the happiest country in the world,” but there are high suicide and bullying rates and other mental health challenges that you’re addressing with Vaso Lleno. Do you think that “happiest” reputation is harmful?

I’m not sure it is. I think that what has a bigger impact than that is the fact that Costa Rica is such a small country. We all know each other and, from my perspective, there is… an exaggerated fear of being judged. People panic and are ashamed to say that they aren’t as happy as people think. Costa Rica is like a small town, una finca, and that’s the reality.

Cris Gomar. Via Instagram @sharingmindspodcast

The thing about being the happiest country in the world has some valid and important elements. Education, the [lack of an] army, interpersonal relations, flora and fauna per square meter. We could take advantage of this much more. People are afraid to talk about mental health… How many businesses truly have a mental health protocol in their offices? How many offer psychologists or psychiatrists among their benefits?

When it comes to bullying, we need more data, and with suicide, there are data at the hospitals or the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ), but they’re skewed because there are many suicides that aren’t identified as such.

What has surprised or taught you the most as you’ve developed Vaso Lleno?

I never thought Vaso Lleno would be so popular… the biggest lesson might be the enormous fear I have noted to be judged. There are so many things we don’t do because we are afraid of what people will think. These are barriers we create ourselves. A second really nice surprise and lesson has been the facility people have to connect when we start off believing that we are all human beings with feelings, and that we can use vulnerability as a tool.

Cris uses texts to show what anxiety looks like on the Vaso Lleno Instagram feed.

The third lesson is how much we dismiss how people feel. We have been taught to be afraid of sadness… and anger. If a child is crying, we say, “Stop crying,” before we ask, “What’s wrong?” Sadness and anger… are the body physically having a reaction. Your body is telling you that you need to do something about this. But diay, they told us that no, we can’t be sad.

How did you come to create Vasoterapia?

When you put two people who have never seen each other before at a table and ask them about their greatest regret… suddenly tears will flow, or one will embrace the other. You understand that we are made of emotions and stories and struggles, too, and successes. …How can we connect more? I can celebrate when my friend has a baby, but when she has post-partum depression, how many people come around?

Cris with a Vasoterapia set, designed to jumpstart conversations.

I realized that saying “mental health” is like saying a dirty word. People think that when you talk about mental health, you’re going straight for depression and suicide. When you talk about sex ed, you’re not going to talk only about prostitution… Mental health is really about respect. So I started to think about, how can we talk about mental health without talking about mental health? That’s what Vasoterapia has become. How people can recognize and identify their own emotions and lose their fear of talking to their partner, their families, take off all these masks we wear.

What we all need is support, with all our imperfections and opportunities and strengths and demons.

What’s next for Vaso Lleno?

Diay, pues, changing the world! I’ve realized Vasoterapia is a very good tool, so I’m making a children’s version, a Volume II, a couples’ version, and of course versions in English… And I’d love to continue doing monthly gatherings, spaces that are free from judgment and full of empathy. I’d like to visit more businesses, and schools as well. We’re taught all about the cordilleras and valleys and mitochondria, but not what to do when Grandpa dies, or when we break up, or lose a job, or when Dad is in a tough economic spot and we don’t know what to do. I’d like to work with little kids all the way up to teenagers: social media and how they affect our mental health, eating disorders, relationships, bullying.

And I want to write a book…  I breathe and sweat mental health. I am fascinated by everything to do with it.

Learn more about Vaso Lleno and Vasoterapia here. Cris and I had planned to raffle off a set on the Daily Boost this month, but – she’s sold out! Stay tuned for a future raffle. Read more from this month’s special focus on mental health: TeenSmart’s inspiring stories of mental health victories by teenagers, tips from Margarita Herdocia for mental health for migrants and all those of us facing stress, and some further reflection on that “happiest country” title.

I’m a writer in San José, Costa Rica, on a year-long quest to share daily posts on inspiring people, places and ideas from my adopted home as a kind of tonic during a rough time in the world. Sign up (top right of this page) to receive a little dose of inspiration every weekday in your mailbox; tell a friend; check out past posts; and please connect with me on Instagram or Facebook! You can also find me churning out small, square poems on any topic under the sun (here on the site, on Instagram or Twitter). 


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