Commentary: Rising suicide rates in Mexico expose the grueling toll of living with extreme, chronic violence
Chronic exposure to traumatic events and violence is leading to severe mental distress in many residents, one of the reasons behind the rising suicide rates in one state in Mexico, says one observer.
CALIFORNIA: Mexico has suffered one of the world’s highest murder rates for over a decade, a consequence of the government’s aggressive, 12-year-long battle against drug trafficking organisations and other criminal groups, which has led lethal violence to escalate across the country.
Almost 30,000 Mexicans were murdered in 2017. May this year was Mexico’s most violent month in 20 years, with an average of 90 killings a day, according to the Mexican secretary of the interior.
Prominent victims of Mexico’s conflict include politicians and political operatives assassinated while campaigning for the July general election, student teachers who disappeared in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero in 2014 and a few Mexican journalists killed so far this year.
In places where the violence has been highly concentrated, residents have spent the past decade taking precautions, coping with fear and processing tragedy.
Now, new data from the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua reveals the dangerous mental health toll of living with extreme, chronic violence: Suicides.
Violence researchers like myself once considered Chihuahua, which shares a border with Texas, to be a Mexican success story in decreasing lethal violence.
Its biggest city, Ciudad Juarez, which sits just across the US-Mexico border from El Paso, used to be one of the world’s most dangerous places.
Its 2010 murder rate of 229 killings per 100,000 people was 14 times higher than the Latin American average and 38 times the global homicide rate. An average of 70 Ciudad Juarez residents were killed every week.
By 2015, thanks in large part to a pioneering public-private anti-violence initiative called Todos Somos Juarez, or We Are All Juarez, the city’s murder rate had dropped to 32 murders per 100,000 residents.
These days, violence is slowly rising again. Depending on the year, Ciudad Juarez ranks among Mexico’s most dangerous cities.
But even when homicides were dropping in Ciudad Juarez, suicides were steadily rising.
The city’s 2017 suicide rate, 8.9 per 100,000, was nearly twice what it was in 2010. Last year, nearly 12,000 people – 1.3 per cent of Ciudad Juarez’s total population – tried to kill themselves.
Ciudad Juarez’s mental health crisis reflects a state-wide trend. According to government data from 2016, Chihuahua state had the highest and fastest-growing suicide rate in Mexico.
In 2010, fewer than seven of every 100,000 people in the state committed suicide. By 2015, the figure had reached 11.4. Last year, Chihuahua saw 12.3 suicides per 100,000 residents.
That’s more than twice the Mexican national average and just shy of the United States’ alarming rate of 13.8 suicides per 100,000 people.
SEVERE MENTAL DISTRESS, TRAUMA, ANXIETY
Why are so many in Chihuahua driven to take their own lives? Local researchers believe that chronic exposure to traumatic events causes the kind of severe mental distress that can lead to suicidal behaviour.
Last year, the Autonomous University of Juarez City conducted research with 315 students on campus. It found that living in one of the world’s most violent cities had triggered paranoid thoughts.
Few of the students interviewed had been victims of Ciudad Juarez’s brutal violence. But all had heard about kidnapped women, beheadings and other crimes – some equally gruesome – from friends and family or on the news. As a result, they had an unshakable feeling that their lives were in danger.
Researchers also conducted a similar study on student mental health in 2014. It determined that 35 per cent of students struggled with depression and almost 38 per cent reported anxiety.
Nearly one-third showed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, including always feeling on guard, having trouble sleeping and difficulty concentrating.
Research on high school students in Ciudad Juarez has likewise found a higher-than-usual incidence of depression, paranoia and PTSD.
These results are consistent with mental health surveys in other conflict zones.
A 2011 study of people displaced during Colombia’s civil war found evidence of PTSD in 88 per cent of participants. 44 per cent suffered from depression.
Researchers interviewed over 1,000 students in Afghanistan in 2006, five years into the US-led war against the Taliban. Almost a quarter had flashbacks and anxiety, both signs of PTSD.
Such results have contributed to the World Health Organisation’s classification of disaster, war and conflict as suicide risk factors.
MEXICO’S PUBLIC HEALTH EMERGENCY
Research on the mental health impacts of Mexico’s drug war is in very early stages. I cannot conclude with certainty that chronic violence in Ciudad Juarez is driving the sharp uptick in suicides in Chihuahua state.
But Chihuahua’s suicide crisis may well indicate a simmering public health emergency in other Mexican states with high murder rates, including Michoacan and Guerrero – not to mention in neighboring countries like El Salvador and Honduras that remain far more violent than Mexico.
With 2018 on track to be another year of record murders in Mexico and president-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador taking office in December, this is the moment for Mexico to begin grappling with the hidden, longer-term costs of its bloody drug war.
Cecilia Farfan-Mendez is a postdoctoral scholar at the Center for US-Mexican Studies at UC San Diego. A version of this commentary first appeared on The Conversation.