Brianna Thompson is a Practical English for Success (PES) volunteer serving in a pueblo in Atlántico, Colombia.
Early on in every Peace Corps Volunteer’s service, they become very aware of threats to mental health. The topic is touched on during Pre-Service Training by both medical staff and Peace Corps Volunteer Leaders; all trainees discuss what good mental health and poor mental health look like, what healthy/unhealthy ways of coping are, what expectations we have and how we might adjust them, and repeatedly talk about “resiliency” — i.e., “getting through Peace Corps service.”
My group was told that statistically 1/3 of Colombia’s PCVs do not finish their service. While there are a number of reasons that people leave early, the majority seem (from my personal and not at all statistical observation) to be due to mental – or emotional – health concerns: depression, anxiety, not feeling happy here.
The deck is certainly stacked against us.
In our mostly-rural post, a large portion of our volunteers lack consistent electricity and running water.
It’s hot. Like, really hot. The kind of hot that I need to mention three times. It’s hot. And, yes, the heat can actually affect a person’s mental state.
Mosquitoes eat us alive.
We live with host families.
There’s a language barrier (even if you reach the Advanced level of Spanish, you may still have problems communicating sometimes).
There are cultural differences.
The diet is different.
Plus, there’s a lot of free time.
For me personally, in my little “Posh Corps” periurban site (I live a 30 minute bus ride from the city, my house has Wifi, and I can count on one hand the number of times that our water has been shut off), this free time has been the biggest threat to my mental health. This free time has given me a lot of space to think. And far too often, this thinking has actually just been me beating myself up for the mistakes I’ve made in my life, the embarrassing things that I’ve done, the things I should have done. I’ve spent days just spiraling in this fog of negative thoughts, convinced that I am a terrible person. All of this is bad enough, but once I’m in that fog, it makes interactions out in the pueblo more difficult. It makes it easy to resent the cultural differences, rather than respect and embrace them.
Yet I’m still here, 19 months later. That’s because I recognized that I was losing control of my brain, and began trying different tactics to rein it in. Here’s how I did and still do it.
I connect with other people in my cohort to share positive experiences from our very different, yet all-so-similar days. At the beginning, I explicitly asked that no one complain, wanting to create a space specifically for celebrating the good things – no matter how small.
I meditate. I spend 10 minutes in stillness, focusing on my breath. I use mental imagery to watch the thoughts that enter my mind float away like clouds, clearing my head, even if only for two seconds until the next cloud thought comes floating in.
I do yoga. I turn off my fan and pretend I’m in a fancy $120/month hot yoga studio back home, bending and stretching and breathing and sweating and practicing silly things like headstands and crow pose, relishing every millisecond longer that I can hold these difficult poses.
I listen to podcasts that make me a better human. Terrible, Thanks For Asking continually reminds me of how amazing human lives and capacities for love and emotion are, and Awesome with Alison always gets me thinking about who I am and how I can be a better person.
I remind myself over and over and over again something that I first heard on Awesome with Alison: it’s not about you. Sometimes I sub in Kendrick Lamar’s voice, for a similar sentiment, and remind myself “sit down/be humble.”
All of these little things that I do at home privately seep into my daily interactions.
At parties, I am more present. Rather than disengaging and wishing I were elsewhere, I let those thoughts go and focus more on the people around me. I say yes to dancing even before I feel the aguardiente urging me to do it.
I intentionally shift my thinking from “you did this one awful thing five years ago and don’t deserve any of the love and devotion your people give you” to “wow, you’ve done all of these things to help your coworkers and family and friends; what else can you do to show them your love and support?”
I let it go when my counterpart forgets to warn me that there is no class on a given day. I remind myself that their lack of communication doesn’t mean that I am not valued, it just means that their mind was elsewhere and they forgot to let me know.
When projects don’t go exactly the way I expect, I don’t get upset. As long as they meet the expectations of my counterparts and the participants, they are a success. My projects aren’t actually about me.
Of course, I still lose myself in my head sometimes. Hours pass and I realize that I’ve fallen down a well of negative thinking. But when that happens, it doesn’t stick. I remind myself of what I have contributed to this world, to my communities here in Colombia, and back home, and of all the other things that I can provide them in the future if I just pull myself out of the well and take the steps towards being better.