The overlooked mental health of migrants – and a wellness tip for all

In what I think of as both of my countries, the United States and Costa Rica, waves of migrants and refugees fleeing violence and oppression have dominated plenty of headlines in recent years. However, the impact of migration on mental health is generally not at the forefront, at least not for adults. Since I’m an immigrant myself, this topic is close to my heart, not despite the privileged way I migrated but because of it: the fact that I immigrated voluntarily with every economic, linguistic and cultural advantage, but experienced loneliness and homesickness nonetheless, makes me particularly keen to know more about how the migrants and refugees pouring over borders are coping.

I know lots of Daily Boost readers are in the same camp, so this seemed like a natural place to start when exploring mental health this month. Obviously, it’s incumbent upon the countries that receive migrants and the public and private entities that serve them to provide medical care for serious mental health issues, but I was also curious how organizations are dealing with the earlier steps – providing general support and alleviating sadness. To learn more this, I called Margarita Herdocia.

Margarita Herdocia (second from left) with HUG fellows. Via FB/Ticos y Nicas

Margarita is an extraordinary leader in business and philanthropy whose life story could take up this whole post, but who, among many other efforts, is the president of the Asociación Ticos y Nicas Somos Hermanos, which helps fight xenophobia and support migrants to Costa Rica. Passionate about the violence taking place in her native Nicaragua and the need to help young refugees here continue their university education, she has spearheaded the Humanitarian University Grant (HUG) Program and to fund the continuing education of more than 21 young Nicaraguan refugees.

Thanks to donations from many supporters, the group keeps growing so that these bright young Nicaraguans don’t miss their chance to continue learning. The way Margarita sees it, it’s a huge opportunity not just for Nicaragua’s future, but also for Costa Rica as the host for these brilliant young people – and having met some of the scholarship recipients, I fully agree.

Here’s what she had to say about ways she seeks to support the mental health of her students, and how these practices can apply to all of us:

Mental health is something that, despite everything we talk about these days, is so taboo, and people are really stressed out. In particular, migrating is really stressful, and it’s something that’s usually not looked at. Migrants are seen as people who need jobs, and that’s mostly what is thought about: their Social Security coverage, do they have permits or are they working illegally. They are not thought of as people who really need mental health support.

At the HUG Program, we hold monthly meetings with the students, support-group style. I lead the support groups personally. We have total confidentiality and rules about how we can hear people as they communicate their needs, their distress, their life story, their current mental and emotional state. HUG students have become a social support network for each other… these young people stop being lonely migrants, and they know that they are not alone… You can’t overestimate the importance of belonging for a young person.

The HUG scholars also get exposed to different events with leaders of Costa Rica, whether they are social leaders, business leaders – we even take them to concerts and different types of events. They go from feeling irrelevant to, “Oh my goodness. Life is not only sad. Life is not only difficult. There are also connections, and these people I’m meeting have a big name, but they are also human beings.” That’s also character building. It’s what we call building social capital.

A key component that I think can help anybody – emotionally, spiritually, mentally – is that part of the deal of getting this HUG scholarship is that they must volunteer with one of the charity organizations that we support. These HUG scholars, young people, have to serve and help, whether it’s in an old people’s infirmary or having dinner with girls from orphanages that we sometimes take out, or visiting them in the orphanages – so they have an immediate switch from, “I’m a victim, I’m a migrant, I’m poor, I’m new in a new country” to all of a sudden, “I am a helper. I am the one who provides happiness. I am the one who gives emotional support.”

It is by giving emotional support that you actually strengthen your own, and that is huge. It’s not only something that can be done for students, but something that all of us have to do. The moment we stay inside our heads, thinking “Oh, poor me,” it’s just a downward spiral. The minute you step out of your mind and go serve another, you go from victim to helper, and that’s a huge leap in self-esteem.

That’s a prescription I recommend for everybody, whether you’re a migrant or not. Try, on a regular basis, to get out of yourself and go serve others. Then you’ll see how all problems take a different perspective, and it also becomes a mental health insurance and protection that is enormous. To me, that is the biggest anti-depressant: to go and help and serve others.

To learn more about the HUG program or the Asociación Ticos y Nicas and how to sponsor a HUG scholar, visit their website and Amigos of Costa Rica affiliate page. Read more about my January focus on mental health here.

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). 


Why Costa Rica should back up its ‘happiest country’ brand with real talk in 2020

Happy Monday! In 2020, I’m taking the Daily Boost up a notch with a monthly theme, and this month’s is (drumroll please)… mental health! Yes, I’m starting late this month because my mother was visiting, and there’s nothing more important to my mental health than soaking up every minute she’s around.

Every month, I’ll highlight changemakers related to the theme, sharing not only their stories and work but also their tips for travel and living in Costa Rica. I’ll even do a giveaway related to the theme because, in Costa Rica, name just about any social or environmental issue, and I’ll show you small businesses, artisans or nonprofits creating cool products within that wheelhouse. Obviously, not everything during a month will relate to the theme – I’ve gotta save room for plenty of randomness.

So why mental health for January? Because this is a critical and exciting time in Costa Rica for people who care about this issue, and I couldn’t think of a better way to start the new year. First, the critical: Many in the country’s tourism industry tout Costa Rica’s reputation as “the happiest country on earth,” but it is struggling with high suicide rates. The public health care system is working to improve its attention to mental health issues; as with any kind of health care, access is vastly different for different economic groups and geographies, and stigma surrounding mental health disorders worsens this breach. Last year’s emergence of sexual assault and abuse allegations surrounding public figures in Costa Rica provided a glimpse into the massive lack of resources and support for people grappling with mental health challenges arising from abuse. A massive influx of migrants, especially from Nicaragua due to the terrible violence there, has created its own set of emotional problems for people living in exile and isolation.

The exciting part? In Costa Rica, as in many places around the world, mental health champions are not only working steadily in the shadows as they have for years, but also harnessing the power of social media to start lifting the veil on these issues and casting aside the shame that so often results from and contributes to mental health disorders. What’s more, nonprofits focused on teen health and migrant well-being are finding new ways to offer support. In the coming days I’ll be sharing insights from Cris Gomar, founder of Vaso Lleno; migrant rights advocate Margarita Herdocia; and the outstanding nonprofit TeenSmart.

Assessing the happiness of a population is a worthwhile task, because it’s part of creating national indicators that go beyond the economic. What’s more, the public health achievements and strong social networks that help power Costa Rica’s high happiness rankings are worthy of celebration and study. However, the downside is that the “happiest” label makes it even easier to sweep problems under the rug. Here’s to a year in which Costa Rica’s happiness titles are increasingly used as a conversation-starter, rather than a reason for self-congratulation. That way, the studies and accolades will not only celebrate Costa Rica, but also make it a happier place – for real.

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).