Venezuela

Venezuela’s spiralling mental healthcare crisis

Caracas, Venezuela – Luis Alberto Machado can barely sustain a conversation, let alone remember the day he attacked his mother by hitting her over the head with a rock.

The 34-year-old was diagnosed with schizophrenia in his mid-teens. Back then he was still a boy but today his gangly frame towers over his petite 60-year-old mother, Maria Machado, making her an easy target for his violent psychosis.

“We’ve had to lose the fear and learn to hold him down,” explained Luis’s 28-year-old sister Maria Ruli. “[He’s broken] the fridge, the blender. My mother has no life because of him.”

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“It’s gotten worse because there’s a lack of Sinogan,” said Maria Machado in reference to a sedative widely used for psychiatric illnesses.

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The three family members were sitting in the afternoon heat, the last in a line of patients waiting outside the emergency department of one of Caracas’ psychiatric hospitals. Ahead of them a handful of parents and carers also waited, hoping to receive anti-psychotic medication for their patients.

In 2013 Venezuelans had access to 70 types of anti-psychotics; today there are only five, according to Wadalberto Rodriguez, president of the Venezuelan Society of Psychiatry.

“There’s a 95 percent shortage of anti-psychotics,” said Dr Rodriguez. “It’s an extremely complex situation because one anti-depressant cannot cure a variety of depressions.”

As is the case with staple foods, many Venezuelans are often forced to turn to the black market to buy medication at exorbitant prices.

“All patients are receiving the same kind of treatment, which means that many of them aren’t getting any better and the symptoms then become chronic,” explained Rodriguez.

The steep reduction in anti-psychotics in Venezuela is partly a result of the country’s financial strife.

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According to Rodriguez, President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government has often been unable to pay the foreign companies providing Venezuela with medication.

“As a result [the companies] have stopped dispatching [the drugs],” he said.

The failed Vatican-brokered talks between the government and the opposition saw the latter demand the opening of a humanitarian channel to allow medicine into the country, but that channel never materialised.

As a result, many mental health patients in Venezuela are regressing to a state of psychosis and anguish that cannot easily be treated. And although helplines and counselling groups have become increasingly common, this has not halted the rising suicide rate.

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While there are no accurate figures yet, psychologist Dr Yorelis Acosta is adamant that there has been a stark rise in suicides.

“We’re starting to see more information on suicides and keeping count of it,” said Acosta. “In the month of January, 32 suicides were registered in Caracas alone. This is an alarming number that should grab the government’s attention.”

The shortage of drugs, which began in mid-2016, has resulted in a large number of patients being re-admitted into under-equipped hospitals.

“We’ve more and more patients each day,” said 32-year-old nurse Carlos, whose real name has been changed to protect his identity.

Before 2016 the clinic received an average of five emergency cases per day. On the day Al Jazeera visited, they received about 20 during a single afternoon, in addition to those already hospitalised.

“Almost all the patients we have at the moment have been re-admitted because they couldn’t find their [prescribed] medicine,” explained the…

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