Venezuela's hidden damage: Mental stress as desperation grows

AFP , Saturday 16 Mar 2019

Poor neighborhood in Caracas
Locals line up to replace empty propane gas drums in Las Minas de Baruta neighborhood, Caracas, Venezuela, on March 14, 2019. (AFP)

Escarli is afraid of the dark. German appears absent. Yuri tips into rage at the smallest upset. Mental malaise in Venezuela is growing, a hidden anguish adding to the litany of ills ravaging the country.

A nationwide blackout, unprecedented in scale and length, only worsened the psychological descent for Venezuelans as they watched cash machines and water pipes shut down for lack of electricity, and their homes plunged into darkness.

The outage lasted five days, to Tuesday this week. But the trauma goes on, giving some residents a haunted look -- people tottering on the edge after four years of political and socioeconomic crisis.

"There is desperation," summed up Jorge de Avila, a 38-year-old store employee who lined up at dawn to buy canisters of cooking gas in a dangerous poor district in the southeast of Caracas.

The neighborhood of makeshift houses spent seven days with no power, and two weeks without water. The little food stored in fridges spoiled, and the local clinic ceased operations.

"These have been hard days. We have no access to services, to food. Many families with children are sinking into despair. Many shops are shut. A lot of food has spoiled," De Avila told AFP.


Chronic anxiety

Stefania Aguzzi, a psychologist heading a free mental health association that consults by telephone, said many Venezuelans are "suffering with enormous sadness" that could "become depression very quickly, with anxiety levels that would turn chronic."

The blackout was a dramatic blow on top of a deteriorating situation for the country of 30 million inhabitants who are reduced to daily protests and struggling to survive against a tsunami of hyperinflation and lack of cash, food and medicine.

For days it paralyzed the country, knocking out bank card terminals in shops used to electronically pay for what goods were available, forcing citizens to increasingly turn to the only currency available: dollars.

Water pumps stopped working. Some hospitals without standalone generators collapsed.

"We're in a bad way, and on guard because there's looting going on, some establishments are being robbed. There is tension. Police are firing shots, running after those people. You lock your doors but don't know if they're going to turn on you," said Gabriela Martinez, a 37-year-old administrator.

For Mayaro Ortega, a psychologist and researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, "this state of chronic emergency is a risk factor for developing post-traumatic stress."

When someone is incapable of securing basic necessities and personal safety, they can fall victim to panic attacks even while outwardly appearing calm, she explained. "Children are the most vulnerable."


I feel afraid

Escarli, a nine-year-old girl with shining dark eyes, fears the darkness the blackout brought.

"When I go to pee I feel afraid because I feel that somebody is going to come and scare me," said the girl, who has spent a week without going to school because of the power outage.

Ortega said Venezuela was impacted by "collective stress."

"It's contagious, and is spread initially because we're social beings. Evolutionarily speaking, we are built to feel empathy for others and what happened in the past still affects us," she said.

Rage is another symptom.

Yuri Martera says she is gripped with fury and "can't tolerate anyone."

She lost control of herself when one of her neighbors expressed unconditional support for the government of President Nicolas Maduro.

"Out!" she screamed, which summoned a crowd that likewise directed their fury at the neighbor.



At the other end of the same district, German Parra, a 61-year-old carpenter, rooted through fly-covered garbage with a faraway look on his face, mentally removed from what was going on around him.

"Sometimes I find a morsel of something to eat," he said, his face lined beyond his years and missing teeth.

Psychologists said the depression provoked by post-traumatic stress can lead to suicidal thoughts.

Aguzzi said she knew of people who committed suicide "because they were diagnosed with cancer and knew there was no way of getting chemotherapy, so they threw themselves off buildings."

There are "a large number of suicides that aren't spoken of," she said.

Even though power has been largely restored, some zones remained without electricity.

In those places, people can be seen seeking respite from the hot nights by sitting on porches, looking up at stars made brighter by the absence of urban lighting.

"How much longer?" neighbors ask each other.

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