December 13, 2018, 22:49

Calls to Puerto Rico’s suicide hotline have skyrocketed since Hurricane Maria

Calls to Puerto Rico’s suicide hotline have skyrocketed since Hurricane Maria

Puerto Rico is having a serious mental health crisis.

The number of people on the island who have reportedly tried to kill themselves since Hurricane Maria hit the island has more than tripled. From November 2017 through January 2018, a crisis hotline run by Puerto Rico’s Department of Health received 3,050 calls from people who said they had attempted suicide. That’s an astounding 246 percent increase compared to the same time last year.

This data was released in a report in January by the health department’s Commission for Suicide Prevention, with additional reporting from El Nuevo Día, Puerto Rico’s largest newspaper.

Even more people called the hotline to report suicidal thoughts (as opposed to those who attempted suicide). About 9,645 people who called the hotline in the past three months said they’d thought about killing themselves — an 83 percent jump from the same time last year.

These numbers are astonishing, and offer a snapshot of the mental health crisis unfolding in Puerto Rico.

The rate of Puerto Ricans who chose to end their lives is also on the rise. The suicide rate in 2017 was the highest it has been since 2013, and men and older Puerto Ricans were much more likely to kill themselves. About 86 percent of all suicides were men, and about a third involved people between the ages of 55 and 69, the data shows.

It’s hard to tell how much of the spike is directly related to the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. But the likely connection is difficult to ignore.

Julio Santana Mariño, a psychology professor at Universidad Carlos Albizu in Puerto Rico, said that Hurricane Maria made a lot of problems in Puerto Rico far, far worse, particularly high unemployment and homelessness. These are common risks factors for suicides, he told El Nuevo Día.

The devastation from the hurricane likely pushed many people over the edge, he added. “It’s normal for there to be family conflicts, but when you add the stress of more than five months without power, without food, living patterns change … it makes it harder for people to manage daily life,” Santana Mariño told the newspaper.

He is researching the post-hurricane mental health crisis and says that suicidal thoughts have been reported the most often in remote communities, where power outages and access to food and water have been most severe.

Living conditions remain dire

Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico five months ago this week. The Category 4 hurricane was the worst disaster ever to strike the island. While living conditions have improved since, life is far from normal for the average American living on the island.

Going to school, having clean drinking water, and even getting regular trash service remains a daily challenge months after Hurricane Maria swept through.

Puerto Rico is also experiencing the longest blackout in US history. About 16 percent of the island’s electricity users still don’t have power, and the government doesn’t expect to restore it fully until May. The lack of basic services has fueled a mass exodus from the island, which demographers expect will only worsen. More than 250,000 people have left Puerto Rico for the US mainland — possibly for good.

Job opportunities in Puerto Rico are still hard to find. The unemployment rate has inched up since the hurricane hit, to 10.9 percent in December — the highest in the United States.

It’s no surprise the future seems grim for many Puerto Ricans.


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