Aug 29, 2023 - World

Uruguay to offer free antidepressants to combat soaring suicide rate

Illustration of four hands reaching for the same pill.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Uruguay is tackling its staggering suicide rates by offering free antidepressants and establishing youth social and mental health centers as part of a national plan to promote wellbeing.

The big picture: The country's average suicide rate last year was more than double that in all of Latin America. There were 23 suicides per 100,000 people in 2022, up from 20 in 2019. The regional average last year was 9 per 100,000 people.

  • In the U.S., the 2022 rate of suicide was 14.4 deaths per 100,000 people, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation analysis.

Details: Uruguay's mental health plan is set to start in 2024 with $20 million in government funding.

  • Details are sparse, but the government says people who are prescribed the antidepressant medications escitalopram, fluoxetine or sertraline by a public health system doctor will get it at no cost through a voucher.
  • The plan is "likely to have a relevant impact on people who need to take these medications for prolonged periods of time," Public Health Minister Karina Rando said at a recent press conference.
  • The government will also fund more services at addiction treatment centers, cover at least two-thirds of the co-pay for psychiatric treatment for patients who have attempted suicide, and increase, from 25 to 30, the maximum age it will subsidize the co-pay for therapy.

Zoom in: The country is also putting a focus on early prevention, with plans to open seven "social inclusion" community youth centers offering sports and education programs as well as group therapy sessions.

  • Last year, the suicide rate among Uruguayans ages 15 to 19 was 18.3 per 100,000, a significant increase since 2019, when the rate was 11.29 per 100,000.

What they're saying: Ana Monza, member of the Uruguayan Psychological Association, tells Axios Latino that it's noteworthy that the government is trying to tackle mental health issues and focusing on early intervention for teens.

  • "The measures, pending more details on their budget, could really contribute to the national response needed for these issues," Monza says.
  • She adds the plan should also prioritize strengthening the health system overall for an "integral approach," including training general practitioners to detect emotional and mental health warning signs.

Between the lines: There's no consensus on what's driving the high suicide rates, but Monza says it's a "complex phenomenon" that includes social, personal, psychological, biological, cultural and environmental factors.

  • "For some, it may be substance abuse or a mental illness, for others it may have been something impulsive or chronic stress or family history... There's no single thing."

Zoom out: Countries all over the world have been putting a greater focus on mental health, especially in light of the coronavirus pandemic, which led to higher rates of stress, depression and anxiety, according to the World Health Organization.

  • A study published in the Lancet medical journal suggests social factors such as alcohol use and education inequality may be contributing to rising suicide rates in Latin America.
  • The study found that overall increased public spending on health and having more practicing doctors led to a decrease in suicide mortality rates in all Latin American nations from 2000 through 2019.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, call or text 988 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Ayuda disponible en español.

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