**Warning** This isn’t a fluff piece; it isn’t a ‘Kumbaya, come to Belize life is perfect and you’ll easily assimilate in to a dreamy existence in paradise.’ No! This is a Dream Crusher post. Hey, I have to write them sometimes. I try to keep this blog positive and upbeat but honest and real; so, while I LOVE living in Belize, I also recognize it is far from perfect AND it ain’t for everyone. Now, these are of course just my opinions and experiences so they can differ from yours or maybe you “had a friend who…” But generally speaking, let’s get in to why Social Workers and Mental Health Providers from North America (or South Africa, or the UK, or a number of other places) won’t successfully make a move- career wise- to Belize.
Every so often an aspiring expat will join one of these facebook groups about moving to Belize and they’ll ask about the ease of immigration specifically related to finding employment. (FYI- a work permit has an annual fee of $1500 us dollars at the moment. Yeah, $3000bzd just to be able to work in Belize) I have a background in Human Services so the ones that list ‘Social Work’ or ‘Mental Health’ as their profession are the ones that stick out to me the most. Is it needed? Sure! I mean, definitely! But is it feasible? Is it practical that an outsider (regardless of how well-intentioned or educated or trained) can come in and get a job as a Case Manager with Child Protective Services or as a Guidance Councilor at the local HS or therapist at an outpatient center? Um, no. Because in large- those positions don’t exist. Belize isn’t set up like that and baby, you’re not the one who’s going to put the system in place. You’re not the one. Here are a few of the hurdles as I see them
This should be obvious but for some reason it seems to need repeating every now and again: Belize isn’t North America (Belize isn’t even Mexico or Jamaica or anywhere else… it’s Belize). It’s fascinating and beautiful and tragic just how different a people can be. We have different views, values, practices, histories- you name it! No matter how diligently you work to assimilate, you will still view the world and situations through the lens of your experiences and make conclusions that are right to you but may not be the conclusion someone else reaches. Things that are red flags for abuse or neglect in the US, unaddressed rotting teeth in a child for example, could be the norm in Belize. (they are btw… the majority of children here never see a dentist with their ‘baby teeth’ and it isn’t a big deal if those are riddled with rot because they’re viewed basically as practice teeth anyway) Poverty is different. Dwellings that would be condemned in the US are just regular family homes here, nothing to raise an eyebrow over though most North Americans would be shocked. (for some insightful stats on poverty and homelessness read this past post)
While English is the official language of Belize, it doesn’t mean it is the only one. Spanish, Kriol, several dialects of Mayan, the Garifuna people even have their own language. While not impossible, I think it’s rather more difficult to form a therapeutic relationship with a client when not communicating in their native or preferred tongue. Compound that with the cultural differences and you have a wide gap to leap. I remember when I was an eager case worker at the homeless shelter and I so wanted to be the answer to all my clients’ problems; and while they would come to me for things like replacing ID, filing disability claims, coordinating health insurance and care, ect., they would always go to this one other colleague with the personal stuff (baby mama drama, what to do about gangs trying to recruit them, substance use, and so on). The majority of my clients were young black men and I was lamenting to my boss that they just won’t open up to me like they would with my co-worker. She said something that rocked my world at the time, “Megan, you can empathize all day long and that’s good but in the end… you can’t relate.” ugh! You might disagree or have your own hard-knocks backstory, you might be a person of color but the truth is: you’re also a person of privileged. Whether you view yourself as such or not; through birth lottery alone, the sheer fact that you’re coming from a developed country and now having the opportunity to immigrate (anywhere), you are privileged.
Support Services are few and far between
When I worked in Human Services I became a jack of many trades because case management involves so many aspects. Care is always multifaceted and evolving. We talk about the continuum of care- of when someone’s crisis is stabilized (ex: in-patient psychiatric stay) what next steps should be taken to right their ship (medication coordination, intensive out-patient, accessing the safety of their living situation) and then once on the right track, how to maintain their stability (med maintenance, on going therapy, support groups, job training, life skills classes, assisting with employment, advocacy in court). There’s a lot of moving pieces, a lot of different services one client might need. You will not find many services here. They just don’t exist and even the systems that are in place are difficult for locals to navigate; do you think you’re going to do much better?
Pay to Play
Like I mentioned above, work permits come at a cost of $1500usd per year. In the US, teachers and social workers make around the same average salary so I’ll use that comparison of what a social worker in Belize might make. Teachers in Belize make around $22000bzd but lets round our fictional social worker up to $25k annually. Divide by 12 months: a little over $1000usd a month, yikes. So that work permit is already 6 weeks of pay. Hmm. Okay, lets say you instead open a private practice. Maybe you offer family therapy, couples counseling, CBT for anxiety or depression… cool. But then you’ll be looking to be paid out-of-pocket for your services as the vast majority of people here do not carry health insurance. What could you realistically expect to charge? My average private doctor visit is around $70bzd. How many patients could afford multiple sessions and how many patients would you need to see each week to get by? It’s a losing game, the numbers just don’t compute.
Wow! What a bummer of a post, right? Sorry. It isn’t a total loss though- this wild, evolving world we live in is always presenting new opportunities. How could a Social Worker or other type of therapist live and work in Belize? Online Therapy Platforms! This is the future (and the future is now) of therapy- virtual appointments instead of in-person. There’s loads of platforms and they make matching therapists and patients super simple, they handle the billing and insurance claims, you can make your own hours. Honestly, this is the way to go for expats: if you can move here and make a North American salary that is the ideal scenario. Then you can volunteer your expertise in your new community as you feel comfortable with! I don’t want to discourage anyone from serving their community; help is always needed and appreciated, it’s just that I don’t think its feasible to make a career out of it here.