- Uruguay’s suicide rate has reached a record high of 23.3 deaths per 100,000 people.
- Uruguay is an outlier in the Americas, with a rate nearly two and a half times higher than the average of nine per 100,000.
- Experts blame this figure on the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as Uruguay’s relative lack of religious observance. Uruguayan mental health professional Eduardo Katz also noted that the strong Catholic beliefs of neighboring countries also ” [create] A sense of restraint and restraint when suicide is viewed as a sin”.
Uruguay’s suicide rate rose again last year, reaching a new record and cementing the country’s status as the smallest country in the region.
The suicide rate in the South American country reached 23.3 per 100,000 people in 2022, when the total number of suicide deaths was 823, higher than the previous record of 21.6 set in 2021, according to statistics from Uruguay’s Ministry of Health.
“The suicide rate has been increasing from the 1990s to today, with some small declines in a few years,” said Gonzalo de Pascua, a psychologist who is a member of the Uruguayan Coordinator of Psychiatrists and has studied suicide extensively. “The epidemic, like many other areas of health care and mental health, essentially exacerbated a pre-existing trend, which was rising suicide rates.”
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According to the latest available data from the World Health Organization, Uruguay is by far the leader in the Americas, with an average suicide rate of nine per 100,000 people in 2019.
Uruguay’s high suicide rate contrasts with the way the country is often seen as a paragon of economic stability in the Southern Cone. Uruguay has the highest ranking of all South American countries in the United Nations Global Happiness Index, at 28, compared to 49 for Brazil and 52 for Argentina.
Yet two of Uruguay’s neighbors have very low suicide rates, with Argentina recording 8.4 per 100,000 people in 2019 and Brazil 6.9.
Eduardo Katz, who heads the mental health department at Uruguay’s State Health Services Administration, says at least part of the disparity may be due to “underreporting in neighboring countries.” Although he admits that hardly tells the whole story.
“Another very important factor is that religion is much less restrictive in Uruguay” than in neighboring countries, Katz said, adding that seeing suicide as a sin “also creates a sense of restraint and prevention.”
Experts also speculate that Uruguay’s small population — totaling about 3 million — makes it more difficult for those experiencing mental health challenges to seek help for fear of being judged by members of their community.
“There are a few of us and we all know each other,” Katz said.
There is also a strong stigma against asking for help.
De Pascua said that prejudice persists in Uruguay that mental health services are for the insane. “There’s still a lot of bias when it comes to talking about mental health, and even more so when we talk about suicide.”
This is even more pronounced in rural areas, where suicide rates are highest, and among men, who account for eight out of 10 of all suicides in the country.
“A man is less likely to speak up when he’s feeling down because he faces a social taboo, a social taboo that exists because of the false pretense of saying, ‘I’m sad,’ ‘I feel bad,'” Katz said. “It’s seen as a sign of weakness.”
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Despite years of high suicide rates, Katz said Uruguay has only recently begun to change its approach to combating the scourge.
Katz said the health care system has not prioritized “reducing demand, that is, working on prevention.” “That’s what we’re starting to do now.”
De Pascua, for his part, said Uruguay has long had a “very individual focus on the person who makes the effort and not in a solution that is more community-based.”
Despite the recent shift in focus, there is little hope that this will lead to an immediate change in the country’s high suicide rates.
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“Obviously there’s no magic wand that can reverse this kind of trend overnight. It’s going to take a long time,” Katz said. “It’s very difficult to reverse a trend, but I’m sure we’ll get there.”