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Expat mental health

Expat Mental Health: Looking After Yourself in Central America

Expat mental health is something rarely discussed by anyone. Not expats themselves, nor those in the industry of helping expats transition to new lives. We offer a few tips on staying well when and if those dark clouds ever start to swirl while everyone else around you seems to be doing so well.

This week, a friend of mine took her life. She was an expat in this part of the world, around the same age as me, and down here for a good amount of time. No green newbie at all.

I won’t go into any more details than that, as it’s not my place in any way to do so, especially in a public space like this. I won’t talk about her at all other than the fact that I’m shocked and saddened, and I wish I’d reached out to her. But I didn’t.

It got me thinking, anyway. Got me thinking about what to do when you’re living in a foreign country, far away from your family and those who love you most, in a different culture, and those dark clouds come for you.

Those dark clouds are, frankly, nothing new to me.

They’ve hovered around me most of my life and I’m no stranger to melancholia. This is why I wish I ‘d reached out to my friend before she did what she did. But I didn’t and that’s that.

As a mutual friend – the one who told me the news in the first place – said, “it’s causing me to rethink how I approach similar things in the future,” talking about reaching out. Hear, hear. Me too.

But back to those dark clouds.

As I said, I’m familiar. The past few years have been, on the whole, quite traumatic for me. The months before the pandemic kicked in saw me make a ton of life-changing-for-the-worse-errors that left me alone and financially bereft.

Then the pandemic obviously did nothing to help that. Again, without going into details, I’ve been there, and perhaps it’s only by the grace of God that I’m here today to write this.

And I’m very glad I am here today, believe me.

So I wanted to write a little about the other side of expat life. The side all the pushers of real estate and tropical dreams ignore.

I wanted to share that being down here, whether you’re a newbie or a 20+ year veteran like myself, can get you down, get you lonely, get you despairing. And there’s nothing wrong with that. As long as you acknowledge and deal with it and have the tools to come through the other side.

Sometimes, what happens is simple. People sell up everything, move to Costa Rica or Panama or Belize or wherever, and find it doesn’t work for them. Sometimes they find themselves stuck in a situation, running out of money, not speaking the language, or finding themselves otherwise culturally isolated, and it spirals from there.

You see it a lot on the expat Facebook groups (which are toxic snake pits one should avoid when those dark clouds gather, by the way) where people appear bereft and unhappy. A lot of them pretend they are happy to justify to themselves what the hell they’re doing. Seen it a million times.

They don’t have the money to go home while finding it hard to adapt in their new country and they also feel like quitting and going home is some kind of failure, anyway. So they stay and sink, often drinking too much or getting into other types of the mischief that’s easy to come by in Latin America. You can see it in the eyes of some folk.

Of course, most people who come down here don’t end up like this.

And don’t get me wrong – my friend didn’t end up like this. I’m talking here in general about a side of expat life that many people ignore or don’t think will ever effect them.

But as I say, most don’t end up like this (although it’s worth pointing out that we face, apparently, double the risk of mental health problems than those who never left their home countries). Most have wonderful, fulfilling lives. Speaking from my own experience, moving to Central America is still the best thing I’ve ever done, despite everything. That sentiment is the default one for the majority.

And if they are susceptible to the dark clouds, it’s likely that being in Central America is far more of a help than a hindrance when it comes to their mental health.

After all, lots of sunshine, bright colors everywhere, gorgeous beaches, access to amazing hiking, surfing, and an outdoor lifestyle are the best antidepressants in the world. Far better than the ones that come in pill form. At least for me, anyway.

But, you know, everyone is different, so if sunshine and nature don’t help, don’t feel guilty about it, get the pills if they work for you. Sometimes being around everyone having a jolly old time living life in the sunshine can make you feel worse, so don’t hesitate.

Know you’re not alone.

You might see on Instagram that everyone’s doing amazing. In fact, you might be creating the impression yourself that you’re doing amazing in Central America for your Instagram followers back home. Tears of a clown and all that.

Not everyone is doing amazing, though. Many of them are fronting it. If you’re feeling overwhelmed and lost in your expat life, it’s okay to admit it, take a step back from social media, and take time to heal yourself.

Speak to people. Stay in touch with family and friends back home. This is something I admit I often struggle with and need to work on much more. During the depths of the pandemic when the world went nuts, I was often on Zoom meets with folks back home. It was a tonic and I need to return to that.

Speaking of speaking, don’t ignore new friends in your chosen country either, especially other expats.

No-one wants to be that moaning Minnie in the community, bringing everyone else down, I get that. Sometimes that stops me from talking “deep thoughts” to other expats after over 20 years here, so I understand. But no-one knows your situation better than others in similar situations, so if you’re lucky enough to have good friends, real friends, count on them.

Take up a hobby, do something.

Work can fill lots of voids, especially if you’re down here as a remote worker/digital nomad. You’re hustling and trying to make money. That’s fine – being a digital nomad in Central America is awesome, as you can earn in dollars and spend in local currencies. Three grand a month is a lot more in this part of the world than in London or San Francisco.

But get out there and do something else, too. Something that isn’t drinking in expat bars, by the way. Hike, surf, cycle, birdwatch, SUP, yoga, anything. Become a coffee expert. Volunteer. Learn the language. And when you’ve learned the language, learn another one. You get the picture. Try to lead a fulfilling life doing interesting things and that’ll keep the dark clouds at bay.

Speaking of not drinking in expat bars, that’s good advice. In over 20 years here, it’s easy to think that most gringos are alcoholics. A lot of locals see it that way.

Nothing wrong with a tipple here and there, of course. But if you’re drinking alone in expat bars surrounded by other people drinking alone in expat bars, then stop doing that. I’ve done it myself, and I’ve cut down from that in a big way and life is better for it. On the rare occasion when I go out for a drink nowadays, I’m meeting someone. I’m not tying one on alone.

Stop watching the news from your own country and then bitching about politics on social media. Americans seem to do this more than anyone, and I promise its not good for your mental health. Stay engaged, sure. But also become engaged in what’s happening where you are, not where you were. Ditch your TV and listen to podcasts instead.

Professional therapy can work, too.

Luckily today, you don’t need to go lie on a couch in some Woody Allen-lookalike’s office. You can do it all online through companies like BetterHelp. Invaluable if you’re in a country where you don’t speak the local language or know your way around health systems.

None of this is rocket science, of course. I’m just trying to help expats know that if they’re feeling down, they’re not alone, and there are things they can do.

In my experience, us expats in far flung places often have it worse when it comes to eliciting empathy from others. We’re living the life of Riley in the sunshine, after all, surrounded by palm trees and beautiful people. Surely it’s impossible for us to feel depressed and experience those dark, dark clouds, right?

And so when we do experience them, we often feel guilty about that as we live in paradise and so should feel amazing all the time (hence the deniers of anything negative in the Facebook groups and the amazing-life-posters on Instagram).

But there’s a lot to be said about that old adage “wherever you go, there you are“.

If things aren’t rosy for you, oftentimes a change of scenery will help. But not always. Not always. The key is recognizing this and not beating yourself up for feeling down when everyone expects you to be up.

Get out there are embrace the culture, make friends, and explore. Do all that stuff. But know that if you’re that way inclined, those clouds don’t care where you are. They’ll still come, so acknowledge them and reach out to someone when they do.

Moving abroad and creating a new life for yourself is, in the end, a great achievement. Most people never move any further than 50 miles from where they were born. The fact you’ve moved to a different culture is something to be proud of, no matter whether you’re a younger digital nomad or an older retiree.

When you up sticks and move to Central America, the other expats around you are generally not “normal” people. They are – like you are – wired in a slightly different way. This can make it more difficult to even admit things aren’t right with you.

But don’t feel beholden to that pressure to show how much of a great life you’re having, if you’re not. It’s fine to step back, take stock, and reconsider your options if things aren’t working. Reaching out to others is fine.

None of what I’ve written here is professional advice, of course. It’s just some musings from a 20+ year expat about some of the mental pressures we can find ourselves under.

And most of all, it’s a simple reminder that, no matter how bad things are, you’re not alone, you’re never alone, and talking is always better than not talking.

James Dyde is the editor of He lives in Escazu, Costa Rica.

James Dyde

James Dyde

James Dyde is a British immigrant to Costa Rica and the editor of this website. He has lived in Central America since 2000 and retains a deep love for the region. He lives in Escazu, Costa Rica.