SANTIAGO – The coronavirus arrived in Chile at a time when many in the country were still struggling to assimilate the looting and police violence that accompanied last October’s uprising against economic inequality, so it is no surprise to see growth in the number of people experiencing emotional distress.
More than 30 people died and thousands more were hurt – the vast majority at the hands of police – in the mass mobilization against the economic policies of right-wing President Sebastian Piñera.
COVID-19 has claimed nearly 9,000 lives in Chile, which has more than 330,000 active cases.
Experts say that the cumulative effect of these traumas on people’s psyches in a country that prided itself on being the most stable in Latin America could provoke a major mental health crisis.
“Many months of travail, of bad news. Nobody can bear this,” Ana Montes, a 58-year-old concierge, tells EFE, adding that she been kept awake at night for weeks by a nagging “little pinch” in her chest.
She attributes the feeling to worry, but can’t put her finger on what is making her anxious.
Everyone in the family is employed except her son-in-law, who lost his job in February, and none of Ana’s loved ones have been infected with the coronavirus. Yet she is constantly uneasy.
Montes says she doesn’t need therapy because she can talk to her sister, and that she won’t take “those pills that are prescribed for some neighbors and which leave them half-asleep.”
Surveys done a year ago, before the uprising and the pandemic, showed that “emotional distress” was a problem for 20 percent of Chileans, while 7 percent were in need of professional help.
The Psychologists Association estimates that the proportion of the population requiring therapy will reach 25 percent amid a mental health crisis of at least three years’ duration.
“We’re going to have depressions, anxiety disorders, post-traumatic shocks and, unfortunately, more suicides,” the association’s vice president, Isabel Puga, told EFE.
With the pandemic still raging and half the population still under some form of lockdown, data about the mental health ramifications of the succession of crises remains sparse.
But the statistics that are available give cause for concern.
The Social Security agency said that the number of people taking medical leave from their jobs for psychological problems rose 25 percent during January-May 2020 compared with the same period last year.
While an analysis of activity on Yapp, a mobile app that allows people to find the best prices on prescription drugs, revealed that demand for anti-anxiety medications skyrocketed 186 percent in the first four months of this year.
“The social eruption was very devastating and activated old fears and a kind of division of the population in segments. The uncertainty and the anxiety the protests generated are very similar to what we are experiencing with the pandemic,” Puga says.
Nicolas Henriquez, 28, was working at a barber shop in central Santiago before the protests broke out and he got laid off.
He had planned to use his severance pay to start a business of his own, but the coming of COVID-19 derailed those ambitions and Nicolas was forced to dip into his meager savings to help his parents, both retirees on pensions.
After reaching the point where he thought of “jumping into the Mapocho,” the river that runs through Santiago, he sought out a therapist.
“Promising Chile, where everybody comes to make money, doesn’t exist. We are just as poor as the rest of Latin America,” Henriquez tells EFE.
While the government recently launched an initiative to allow people to talk to therapists via telephone or online, specialists say that what Chile really needs is to boost spending on mental health from the current 2 percent of the total budget for medical care.
The norm in developed countries is 10 percent.
“Most people will go back to their habitual emotional state, some will even be stronger, but there are others who will need therapy. We are in time to avert a disaster,” psychiatrist Vania Martinez tells EFE.
Martinez says that three groups are at highest risk of psychological problems in the present circumstances: health-care workers battling COVID-19; the elderly, because they are ill at ease with the technology needed to stay connected to friends and family while staying home; and adolescents, who find themselves “confined with their parents at a time when they need to cut the umbilical cords.”