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). 

 

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). 

 

Day 38: Let’s talk about anxiety

At some point, if you’re serious about boosting your spirits over the course of a year, you’ll pull some nasty tangles out of dark corners and see if they look different in the light. Sometimes they don’t. But it never hurts to try.

Earlier this year, a doctor used the word “anxiety” to characterize some of my behaviors for the first time ever, and I’ve been pondering it ever since. I was taken aback, but quickly realized he was calling a spade a spade: it was like seeing the hidden shape in a Magic Eye drawing all of a sudden after years of squinting away at it. I chose this photo of a hummingbird for today’s post because that’s the best way I can think of to describe it – what one mind might achieve in long, deliberate wingstrokes, mine achieves through teeny tiny flutters.

This morning a hummingbird got stuck underneath our eaves. It couldn’t figure out that an overhang of clear plastic roofing was actually a solid object and tapped away at it frantically for what my husband said was just a few minutes but which, to my anxious brain, seemed like hours. Meanwhile, another hummingbird kept darting back and forth, trying to show its friend that it was really, really easy to find another way out. The confused bird finally noticed the giant park just to its left and darted away. I watched it, thinking, I see you, buddy. I’ve been there. Maybe I’m there right now.

I can’t trace this to any particular cause. It’s just the way my brain seems to work. Sometimes I swear you can hear my mind whirring away, my hummingbird next to my husband’s hawk, surveying the world from the heights. “What are you thinking about?” I’ll ask him sometimes, and he might reply: “Nothing much.” This is unfathomable to me. My thoughts spin, incessant.

It’s what makes writing so easy and fast for me, and true rest so difficult. It’s why I attempt meditation and then swear. It’s why I love running, I think, because it moves the hum in my head to my legs and then lets my brain slow down just a touch. It’s why sadness or depression make me speed up instead of slowing down.

I don’t have anything profound or useful to add to the conversation I see happening in the world about anxiety, but I do want to be one of the people who is open about her struggles, especially since I think that openness is just starting to come to Costa Rica and should be hastened along wherever possible. I want to be more like Cris Gomar, who, through her mental health initiative Vaso Lleno here in Costa Rica, has been creating some terrific posts about anxiety lately in hopes of removing some of the stigma from it and raising awareness of what it’s like to be inside our heads. For example, her friend texts her simply, “Cris,” and her mind responds with a host of worst-case scenarios (the friend hates her, family members have been hurt) before the friend continues by asking if she can borrow a shirt.

Yup. Sounds about right.

Costa Rica is often hailed as the happiest country on Earth – it even says so in our airport – and every time I see that title now I wince a little, because I don’t think such a silly title is good for mental health. This is a country of wonderful serenity and positivity, and it is also home to cities that are very difficult to live in, and an extraordinarily high cost of living and economic stress, and brutal inequalities, and so forth. You’re not a freak if your brain generates six different alerts between your name and “can I borrow a shirt?” You’re a human. You’re a human in a country where mental health struggles and suicide are very real, and where pulling crap like this out of our closets is a much needed exercise. Maybe our fast-moving hummingbirds do better once they get out from under the eaves.

Have you found or hear about any good strategies for dealing with anxiety? Have you noticed any differences in attitudes towards anxiety or mental health across cultures (or even across languages)? My ups and downs over the past few years have left me with what I think will be an enduring fascination with this topic, so I’d love to hear from you.

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).