News bulletins concerning cases of femicides, and to a great deal homicides in general taking place in Argentina pop up far too frequently nowadays. In the first 43 days of 2017, there were 57 femicides in total.
But while murders and massacres are sensationalized in today’s media and immense movements like Ni Una Menos are fighting to combat issues like gender violence, another grievous killer is often overlooked, a killer that in fact claims more victims each year than homicide in Argentina: suicide.
Suicide in Argentina is still shrouded by taboo and stigma and, tragically, its victims are too quickly turned into another number added to the national statistics. In their latest report, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that globally more than 800 thousand people take their own lives each year, and it is the second most common cause of death among young people, after road accidents.
WHO’s study put Argentina’s suicide mortality rate at 10.8 per 100 thousand residents (2012), while other sources suggests the figure is closer to 7.3 (2011), although obviously the figures for suicide cases are never absolute since there are always hidden or mistaken cases.
Speaking to La Voz, Alejandra Rossi, a psychologist and Director of the Casa del Joven, explained: “There is always under-reporting because there are unknown cases or cases labelled accidents which could have actually been suicides.”
Nearly 1,000 deaths out of an average of 6,573 recorded annually among Argentina’s young people, between 15 and 24 years of age, occur as a result of suicide. That is to say, each year, one in six deaths in this age group is a suicide.
More shocking perhaps is the fact that, for the last 15 years, Argentina’s suicide rate has been higher than its homicide rates. Meanwhile, in many parts of the country, suicide accounts for more deaths than road accidents too. This is the case in the province of Córdoba, for example, where suicide was the leading cause of unnatural death in Capital, Punilla, Rio Primero and Rio Segundo, in 2015 at least.
According to data presented by the province’s Mental Health authorities, 220 cases of suicides were registered with government authorities. In the same year, on the other hand, there were 183 fatal accidents and 100 homicides in the same area.
The province of Salta, on the other hand, has seen its suicide rate skyrocket. Between 2011 and 2013, the rate was three times the national average and UNICEF has recently flagged the issue.
In dialogue with La Nación, José Lumerman, a psychiatrist recognized by the WHO, clarified that all suicides “are preventable. Not only can they be prevented but it’s possible to help people actually recover.”
He went on to explain: “At the Austral Institute in Neuquén, 80 percent of people admitted have suicidal thoughts or history of ideation of attempts. I can confirm that it’s easier for a person with schizophrenia to recover than a person with cancer, if they have the right treatment. But in Argentina, mental health is stigmatized and more importance and urgency needs to be placed on it in the public health sector.”
How is Argentina tackling the problem?
Authorities, specialists and social organizations have started to experiment with new approaches to combat the high rate of suicide, especially among young people, in Argentina. Many are now placing greater importance on reflecting on the meaning of life, empowering young people and building new projects.
The National Ministry for Youth has introduced a Life Coaches program alongside the Foundation for Suicide Prevention, through which they carry out community interventions (workshops and training) in different provinces across the country.
Pedro Robledo, national Deputy Minister for Youth, explained to La Nación, “One of the tools we work with is ISO 30, which allows us to measure a community’s or person’s levels of despair, self-esteem, their means to deal with emotional problems, whether they feel alone and if they are experiencing suicidal ideation.”
In terms of national legislative, a suicide prevention law was passed in 2015, which lawmakers voted for unanimously, but it has not yet been enacted. There are three mains parts to the law: that suicide is declared throughout the country as a topic of national interest, that there is publicly funded treatment options for people who attempt to commit suicide, and that there is training for family members as well as for specialists who work in the field.
On a smaller scale, Argentina is also starting to see a growth in organizations focusing on mental health awareness and suicide prevention, although unfortunately they don’t yet have the same kind of airtime as social associations like Ni Una Menos.
La Nación discovered one such organization with a real success story to share as far as the subject of suicide is concerned, El Camino in Fiambalá, Catamarca. Fiambalá is a town of 4639 residents, which was shaken in 2014 with the news of 16 teenage suicides. Since then, El Camino has been working to reduce that number and has done so by almost 100%.
Columbia University has now incorporated El Camino’s successful model, which emphasizes the potential that young people possess, and academics are studying it in order to try and replicate its success across the rest of the world.
Obviously the country has a long way to go in terms of raising awareness and combatting the huge problem it faces in terms of suicide rates, but these developments are at least positive as initial steps.