In Buttoned-Down Mérida, Despair Sets Off a Wave of Suicides

Suicides are spreading across Venezuela: the latest iteration of a comprehensive public health crisis. In the Andean state of Mérida, with its more reserved culture, the problem is at its worst.

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.