HEALTH

Venezuela's crisis causing widespread anxiety – but few can afford treatment

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 (Getty )

Just trying to keep up with the economy has many Venezuelans in the brink of madness. In the last year, as the rampant inflation and shortages reached a new high, so did the number of people here needing a push to get through their days — unpredictable days, most of the time, and not in a good way.

Mental health specialists consulted by Fox News Latino said there is a remarkable surge of people in the country dealing not only with stress and anxiety, but full-blown panic attacks because of the crisis hitting their country.

"The [patients] may be talking about a divorce, mourning the death of a relative, dealing with a depression because they are bipolar patients, but always at some point they talk about the food, health and economic crisis."

- Dr. Wadalberto Rodriguez

In a 2015 survey conducted throughout the country by its top three universities (Central University of Venezuela, Andrés Bello and Simón Bolívar), 29 percent of respondents said they live “in anguish” and 23 percent said they were overall “sad.”

But most who need to see a mental health professional say they cannot afford to do so – and they go without any sort of treatment.

“Many people call asking for a consultation, but then when they hear the price they choose not to come,” said psychologist Yamila Guerrero to Fox News Latino. “And that probably depresses them even more.”

Guerrero said that in the last year she has seen a marked increase of panic attack cases, referring to disorders that include sudden attacks of fear and nervousness, as well as physical symptoms such as sweating and a racing heart.

"In this situation of generalized tension, anything extra – an illness, a breakup, or any family situation – can trigger a crisis that in other circumstances [the patient] could have handled well,” she said.

“A problem that at another time might have been normal becomes something big," she explained.

Dr. Wadalberto Rodriguez, who heads the Venezuelan Society of Psychiatry, said that virtually all of his patients bring up the issue of the country’s generalized crisis during their session.

"They may be talking about a divorce, mourning the death of a relative, dealing with a depression because they are bipolar patients," he said, "but always at some point they talk about the food, health and economic crisis,” he said. 

In many cases, there is also a sense of helplessness when the patient also has a family to provide for.

The cost of the basic food basket went up 615 percent from last year’s, according to the Documentation Center for Social Analysis, meaning a regular family would now need 21 minimum wages to cover its most essential needs. And that’s if the products are even available in stores.

Genesis Betancourt, 27, recalled how she ended up in the ER recently after waking up with strong tachycardia, which that causes the heart to beat very fast for reasons other than exercise or rest. A native of the southern state Amazonas, she was living in Caracas by herself at the time.

“The difficulty to buy food affected me a lot,” she told FNL. “The money [I was earning] was not enough so I took on a second job to try to survive. But it was a mistake; stress almost killed me, literally,” said Betancourt, who returned to live with her mother in Amazonas.

In a remarkable new trend, Dr. Guerrero she is seeing a marked increase of men seeking psychological support. She said that last year her patients’ ratio was 70 women for every 30 men; now it's 55-45.

"Since culturally the man is the provider, they are at a greater stress, more anxious,” she explained.

Mariana Mata said she’s been concerned about her father, a 73-year-old insurance broker who spends his days worrying about his future in Venezuela.

“He is not in a precarious situation, but he wants to anticipate everything," she said. "He thinks that at some point he will be able to not get his [diabetes] medicines or that money is not going to be enough.”

Mata said that when her father began to lose weight and become increasingly discouraged, his doctor sent him to see a psychiatrist, who prescribed him an antidepressant. He is being monitored closely because at one point he was suicidal, the daughter explained.

And here is where another side of the problem surfaces: According to the Venezuelan Society of Psychiatry, mental health doctors have to work around a scarcity of pharmaceutical products that’s at about 85 percent.

"As of right now we only have one type of antidepressant, two [types of] tranquilizers, one hypnotic drug, and only two anti-psychotics,” said Dr. Rodriguez. “We are trying to help patients with only seven molecular compounds [drugs], when before we had about 60 psychiatric different drugs to choose from."

Rodriguez said that, as is the case with antibiotics, not all mental health medication works the same. "We're giving patients a generic treatment that gives them a lesser chance to be cured,” he said.

And that’s if they can find the medications in the first place.

As for patients whose condition requires hospitalization, he said the situation is devastating. Increasingly, he said, relatives are simply dropping off patients at state-run mental health facilities because they don’t have the means to care for them anymore.

But neither does the state.

The New York Times recently published a heart-wrenching story in which reporters visited six psychiatric wards in Venezuela and found that all had shortages of medicine and food.

"There is a huge hospital crisis, psychiatric care centers are not taking in patients and instead they are discharging them without clinical criteria,” Rodriguez told FNL. “They are forced to do so because there are very serious problems of food, access to water, medication.

“It truly is a catastrophe."

María Emilia Jorge M. is a freelancer journalist living in Caracas, Venezuela.