Photo: Bloomberg retrieved.

“We live between terror and impotence,” said Ignacio Sandia, who heads the psychiatry department. “We constantly think we can’t do what we should in the moment we’re able to, and we’re terrified that patients commit suicide and there’s nothing we can do for them.”

Dr. Sandia was my psychiatry professor in med school. He’s a good friend but, most importantly, he’s a great professional who has worked for years helping those who think all is lost. If someone knows what he’s talking about, that’s him.

And seeing him this helpless is frankly frightening.

I hope one day we get something happy to report about Mérida but, until then, we have news like Bloomberg’s moving piece on a very disturbing reality (impressive pictures by Manaure Quintero, too).

See, the situation is shocking all over Venezuela: By 2012, the whole country had 788 suicides. This year, 786 cases have been reported in Caracas alone. Just like malaria or measles, suicides are spreading like an infectious disease, and the government does its best to hide the data. After all, these news are more disturbing when you consider how much Maduro brags about Venezuelan happiness.

Things are particularly bad in Mérida, a place whose mountainous weather, rigid traditions and genetics (fueled by economic meltdown) may explain the 19 suicides per 100,000 inhabitants rate, among the highest in the world.

“Mérida is nestled in mountains near the Colombian border, and psychiatrists say self-harm has always been elevated there in reaction to a conservative and closed culture. Others point to alcoholism and genetic traits made more prevalent due to intermarriage. The Maduro administration is making matters worse by denying the nation’s collapse is happening,” said Sandia, the psychiatry department head.

“The question for the one who’s suffering becomes, ‘Am I the only one this is happening to? If the problem isn’t the government, if it isn’t the situation in the country, the problem is me, and if I die it solves everything,”’ Sandia said.

Suicides happen in the most unexpected of places, like Bailadores, a small town famous for its flowers and sweet strawberries, badly hit by the economic crisis. Angel Isol Méndez, 75-year-old Bailadores store owner, shot himself after struggling with hunger and a diabetes that couldn’t be treated with the medicine shortage.

“There wasn’t anything left to sell, nothing, not even a piece of candy,” said his wife, Sonia Arellano. “Everything was going wrong. He felt like a prisoner. I figure it forced him to make a decision.”

A similar situation also pushed José Félix Rangel, from the city of Mérida (state capital), after trying to find the expensive treatment for his rare autoimmune disorder.

Senior citizens are the bulk of suicide cases, with a 67% rate increase compared to 2016. Young people aren’t safe either: Eudis Valero, a 20-year-old farmhand from Mérida, hanged himself last year, after a Christmas Eve fight. He had fractured his leg (so he couldn’t work) and suffered severe depression. The suicide rate between minors rose 18% in 2017, compared to the prior year.

As the country collapses, hopelessness rules, and mental illness is a very real threat. Bloomberg’s piece just gives narrative to a reality that all Venezuelans see, too shocked to make sense of it. It’s not just that things are bad: while people go hungry, there’s no improvement in sight.

Please see a professional if you’re feeling down. There’s no shame in needing help.

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14 COMMENTS

  1. Bit telling that all the personal stories reported in the article are men. For what I know of the statistics, it is more or less the case in most of the world that situations like economic crisis end up with a rise in the number of men commiting suicide, while not so high a rise in the number of women.

    Specially in “conservative” societies, a woman can be a victim worthy of compassion if they dont have have food for her children, but a man that cant provide for his family is a failure. Even if the other men dont say anything or even think it because they too see the situation and can understand, this internalized code will push somebody into depression, despair, and the idea that by removing themselves they will “fix” things (“at least they dont have to care for me now”, for example). Not to mention stop their mental suffering of seeing how they have “let down” their families by not being the provider, which they have been raised to think its the only metric that matters.

    • I have no idea, psychology is not my thing, but according to one of the first hits I got for a search, twice as many men as women commit suicide in Norway…on the other side, women in Norway are more likely to TRY to commit suicide
      http://bymag.no/2018/02/derfor-tar-flere-menn-enn-kvinner-selvmord
      I do not know if it is the same in other countries in that regard but then things are not registered. What they saz is men more often choose drastic methods.
      I would very much like to see the stats per age group for Venezuela

  2. It sounds like depression can be added to a growing list of treatable illnesses that are taking the lives of Venezuelans in growing numbers. I imagine the stats are growing simply because of lack of access to medication, as well as other conditions.

  3. I am missing regular updates on the black market exchange rate and best estimates of current inflation. These data are rather like obtaining “vital signs” from a medical patient. I wish CC would find its way to provide a regular update, which could be no more than a short paragraph.

  4. Crazy thing is folks are willing to off themselves rather than risk fighting for change, which might also be fatal but at least they are taking direct action. This is a powerlessness rarely seen in today’s world, a tragic loss of hope and imagination. How might one “fix” that?

    • This -to a certain extent- isn’t casual either. Totalitarian governments do all they can to make you feel powerless. Chavismo took the economic crisis and its apparent military power and exploited them in that sense. The idea that there’s no way out, that no matter what you do the State will remain there, untouched, it’s also one of the defense mechanisms the regime uses. Suicides could be also a consequence of that image.

  5. Tremendously tragic, depression from desperation, often from inability to eat sufficiently, compounded by inability to treat debilitating illness from lack of/too-expensive medicines/medical care. Example: nearby 30-yr. old family father, scrounged 100 greenbacks or so to emigrate, family thought had done so since he disappeared for 4 days, found dead at base of tallest viaduct of Caracas-La Guaira autopista (money still in pockets).

  6. Hi… As someone who lived in Merida for many years, and an MD/PhD Neuroscientist I feel compelled to mention the following.

    1) Did you mean “buttoned-up” rather than “buttoned-down”? In either case, that seems like a rather misguided bit of stereotyping, which doesn’t help anyone and causes more harm than anything.
    2) The reference to “genetics” and intermarriage are bad science and a dangers propagation of bad information.
    3) Regarding the gender difference in suicide rates, these occur worldwide for various reasons that are well known. The first is that suicide rates are based on successful suicides (i.e., the person dies) and not attempted suicides. Men tend to be raised in ways that exposes them to more extreme forms of violence or give them access to weapons. They tend to use firearms or to take more violent action (jumping off a bridge) than women, who tend to choose methods that make it more likely that others will find them in time to prevent death.
    4) As people have pointed out in the comments, the increased rates of depressive and learned helplessness evident in Venezuela is the real problem here.

    • Hello there!

      The title was chosen after edition process. Buttoned-down was chosen to describe the conservative traditions seen in the Andean region, it was never meant to offend anyone, but we’ll keep your recommendation in mind for future posts. Regarding your point on genetics, I’m just reporting what the author of the original post wrote, although I don’t believe it’s a particularly influential factor, endogamy (which isn’t uncommon in small towns) has been hypothesised as a factor that could amplify genetic traits related to some behavioural disorders. One of the papers that suggests its link with higher-than-average suicide rates can be found here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26206761 Nonetheless, I understand this is nothing more than an hypothesis, and I’m far from being an expert on the subject.
      I agree with you on points 3 and 4, depression (and the lack of medications to treat it) is the great driver behind this hike in suicide rates.

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