Development & Aid, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean, Population

POPULATION-LATIN AMERICA: Uruguay Has Highest Suicide Rate

Raul Ronzoni

MONTEVIDEO, Aug 20 1998 (IPS) - Uruguay has the highest suicide rate in Latin America, with 13 out of every 100,000 persons ending their own lives, but its media has generally refrained from reporting on a practice that is now the 10th highest cause of death in the South American country.

The reluctance to touch the issue is a result of the contention by experts that reporting suicides could encourage more people to take their own lives.

However, when an influential political leader committed suicide on Aug. 12, that led to a political confrontation within the co- ruling National Party, and forced the coalition government of President Julio Sanguinetti to release the country’s official suicide figures.

The statistics show a progressive increase in the number of suicides: from 9.2 per 100,000 inhabitants in 1981 to 11.2 in 1993, despite decreasing to 8.9 in 1986. The highest rate for the past 15 years was registered in 1982, when there were 16.74 self- inflicted deaths for every 100,000 inhabitants.

In November of that year, the military government that had seized power in a 1973 coup implemented a harsh new economic policy that led to a sharp and sudden devaluation of the national currency. This sent hundreds of people with dollar-denominated debts into bankruptcy.

While suicide is the tenth most frequent cause of death in Uruguay, it ranks second among youths between the ages of 15 and 24. Seventy-nine percent of self-inflicted deaths occur in the interior of the country, where 55 percent of the 3.1 million Uruguayans live.

These statistics were presented in 1993 in Rio de Janeiro at the World Psychiatry Conference, and they have not changed significantly in recent years, said Guide Berro, a professor of forensic medicine.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Latin America has a relatively low suicide rate. Chile, with 0.3 per 100,000, and Paraguay (1.5 per 100,000) were found in 1990 to have the lowest rates in the region.

Information indicates that suicide has increased in Argentina over the past several years: that country’s rate is now 6.8 suicides for every 100,000 inhabitants, according to the National Programme for Health Statistics.

The latest WHO data shows that in 1990, the suicide rate was 4.8 per 100,000 in Venezuela, 3.6 in Ecuador and 3.5 in Brazil. According to the same source, Hungary tops the list with 40 per 100,000, while the rates in Scandinavia and the United States were 20 and 12.1 respectively.

“There are people who do not see death as an end, but who use it as a means to effect some change in their interpersonal environment,” explained psychologist Ivonne Spinelli, a specialist in therapy and rational and affective education.

A survey conducted among high school students in Uruguay and published last December by ‘Revista Medica’ a local medical magazine, revealed that 28 percent of the students believed at some point that it was better to die than to keep on living and that 14 percent thought about taking their own lives.

The study indicates that for every 50 adolescents that study in Montevideo’s high schools, two to three have attempted to take their own lives at least once.

Psychologist Beatriz Duro has a particular opinion about the problem in Uruguay: “We are a nation without a native population,” she says, “a country made of immigrants which looks to Europe as its place of origin. This is supposedly why Uruguayans are so depressive.”

While the WHO estimates that for each successful suicide there are generally eight unsuccessful attempts, figures suggest that in Uruguay the number is close to 40, she said.

WHO studies have established that before attempting suicide, 70 percent of people consulted a doctor within the three months before their attempt.

At least 30 percent of the suicides in Uruguay involve women. Specialists estimate that suicide is much more prevalent among men because they tend to be more prone to taking violent action.

Commissioner Inspector Washington Curbelo, an expert in the Technical Police here, told IPS that in Uruguay, 40 percent of those attempting suicide used firearms, although this figure has sometimes reached 50 percent.

Poisoning accounts for 14 percent of suicides, suffocation for 23 percent, jumping from high places for 13 percent and wounds with knives and other objects for 2 percent.

Statistics indicate that 60 percent of those who commit suicide are over 45 years of age and 30 percent over 65.

Psychiatrist Eugenio Bayardo believes that the phenomenon is increasing in Uruguay as the population ages and reaches a stage in life in which problems of social alienation, domestic estrangement, scarce economic resources and chronic illness become accentuated.

Federico Dajas, a psychiatry professor at the state university here, fears that the reporting on the suicide of the political leader and the commentary it generated could produce an imitative effect.

The frivolous use of information about someone’s suicide could encourage another person to make the same decision, he maintained.(FIN/IPS/rr/ag/pr-he/mg/kb/98)

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