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).