-Essay-

BOGOTÁ — Colombia's Caribbean coastal cities have people with less depression, bipolar mood swings, schizophrenia and other mental health conditions than elsewhere in the country, according to a recent national mental health poll. Is that surprising?

A few days after I arrived in the Caribbean, I was invited to a barbecue in one of the many residential communities there mainly inhabited by young families. Like other enclosures in hot cities, it included a "spa zone" with a swimming pool, jacuzzi, sauna, steam bath and showers. Our barbecue proceeded smoothly, at least until later in the evening, when the conversation was interrupted. Three black women dressed in the white overalls of the residence's employees, entered the "spa zone," but did not emerge for five, 10, or, was it 15 minutes?

The residents were unnerved. They wondered if the three women were in the sauna or the steam room. I'll go talk to them, one of the residents ventured. Another explained that the women were taking a shower before going back to their own neighborhoods, where "you don't always have water." Finally, there was agreement to discuss the issue at a residents' meeting, and to ban entry into the spa area for all staff at the residential complex.

A few weeks later I met the women who had caused the stir as well as some of their friends and relatives employed in domestic work in the Caribbean. I listened to them in places like Malambo and Soledad — neighborhoods on the outskirts of Colombia's northern cities that are filled with creativity and resourcefulness. I found out how they had set timetables, after some trial and error, for the use of hundreds of private swimming pools in the region. They just laugh at the stipulations laid down by residents in complexes. I found that, in these districts, there is always someone — a neighbor, relative or even acquaintance — ready to turn on the tap to save water for everyone on the days when running water is available.

Residential Community in Colombia — Photo: El Tiempo/GDA/ZUMA

In my research on access to public services like water, sewerage or electricity, I documented various informal networks on getting, keeping, and gifting water. Men take turns to climb onto public generators to extend power cables. Barring nights and weekends when they rest, men, women and children, share everything from personal stories and homework to frustration, anger and loss.

With inadequate infrastructure, neighbors in working-class districts of the northern coast get together to compensate for their neighborhood's shortcomings in order to make life more tolerable. They share a somewhat relaxed attitude to what the day, or life, may bring next. This is what is revealed in the previously mentioned mental health poll.

The survey understands that mental health doesn't pertain to just psychological problems and conditions, it encompasses personal resources and attitudes we adopt in the face of vicissitudes, suffering and emotional tension. The study, which divided the country into five regions — Bogotá, Central, Eastern, Pacific and Caribbean, finds that Colombians are not very satisfied with their interaction with neighbors, except on the northern coast where ties not only bring satisfaction but foment trust. It's the same when it comes to a person''s relationship with their boss, teacher, relative, lover or friend.

The Caribbean is remarkable for the limited amount of psychiatric discomfort among residents. The survey shows that children in this region have the fewest mental disorders. Among adults, in addition to mental disorders, there are fewer symptoms of anxiety, depression as well as fewer attempts at suicide.

But the reason why people report the lowest number of mental conditions may not be as simple as it appears, and the survey results should be read with caution. For example, since people in this region find it hard to access any mental healthcare — it can take more than 15 hours to reach a clinic or specialist — they might have different definitions for an illness or condition from those who can regularly visit a shrink.

Moreover, people in the Caribbean most frequently identify with the statement, "Life has made me so hard that nothing hurts anymore." This attitude casts the otherwise positive poll responses with a pall of melancholy.

Although the Caribbean does well on mental health indicators, old tensions and inequalities persist in this region. As a footnote in the study observes cheekily, mental health cannot exist without social justice.