Lucila Lopez had never received so many consultation requests.
A practicing psychologist, she’d always kept a full schedule of 40 hours per week, along with her work on Fridays at the Ricardo Gutierrez Children’s Hospital in Buenos Aires. Yet in the weeks and months leading up to the elections, she found herself unable to accommodate all of the prospective patients, and those whom she did attend seemed markedly more distressed.
“The levels of anxiety and anguish were much higher,” Lopez said.
As challenging as Lopez’s private practice had become, things at Ricardo Gutierrez, a public medical facility, were exponentially worse. “I saw a radical increase in the number of adolescent suicide attempts,” she continued. “Parents that might normally be able to accompany their children were completely overwhelmed and unable to provide the kind of support they needed.”
A 2017 report from the World Health Organization found that Argentina has 222 psychologists for every 100,000 people, the highest number per capita in the world. But as several therapists in Buenos Aires recently told the Herald, they’re struggling to keep pace with a mental health emergency that only appears to be growing with the country’s political and financial turmoil.
To say that Argentina is living in interesting times would be a gross understatement. Inflation has soared to just over 138%, shattering the country’s already limited purchasing power. The unofficial dollar rate currently stands at just under AR$900 pesos after briefly surpassing AR$1,000 in October, and poverty has eclipsed 40%, according to the National Institute of Statistics and Censuses (INDEC, by its Spanish acronym). Meanwhile, the far-right presidential candidate Javier Milei is threatening to take a chainsaw to the country’s social safety net.
Milei, whose public appearances have grown more erratic in recent weeks, can sometimes feel like a crude avatar for the country’s psychological unrest. At different points on the campaign trail, he has described himself as a “gladiator,” a “lion,” and a “king.”
“I’m seeing a lot of anxiety about the elections, including among children,” Lopez added. “There’s a lot of uncertainty about what will happen in the country, and people are very anguished about that.”
In a 2022 study from the Observatory of Applied Social Psychology at the University of Buenos Aires (UBA), more than 54% of respondents said they were living through some kind of personal crisis, whether economic, health-related, or familial. Some 75% said that they suffered from a form of sleep alteration, including nearly 39% who reported symptoms of insomnia.
The study cited the state of Argentina’s health care, education, labor market, economy, and political system, with its “crisis of credibility” and “lack of predictability,” as some of the driving forces behind this despair. Belen Vitelleschi, a psychoanalyst specializing in community health, believes the presidential race has only exacerbated matters.
“Beyond the uncertainty surrounding the elections and inflation, which are conditions specific to the country, there’s a larger, planetary context for this suffering,” she told the Herald. “The pandemic has produced health, social, economic, and political crises throughout the world.”
Not all pandemics are created equal, however. While the Covid-19 virus has claimed millions of lives across the Global North, it has proved especially devastating in South America. According to Our World in Data, more than 3,100 people per million inhabitants have died from the disease, although its true toll is believed to be considerably higher. (In Argentina, that number is just under 2,900.) What’s more, the region’s economic recovery has been considerably slower, with devastating consequences for its population’s mental health.
Gerónimo Daffonchio, a psychoanalyst who practices in the city and province of Buenos Aires, contends that the tone of this year’s campaigns has had a deleterious effect on a country that has been reeling since March 2020, when the pandemic began.
“Some of the messaging has been hugely destabilizing,” he said. “It hasn’t just distorted the country’s economy. It’s also taken a steep toll on its libidinal energies, which govern human interests and desires and can dictate the well-being of a society.”
For Martin Etchevers, a psychologist and professor of clinical psychology at UBA, this crisis is a product of supply and demand. Relative to the rest of the world, personal therapy in Argentina is incredibly inexpensive, running anywhere from AR$5,000 (around US$14 at the official exchange rate, US$5.50 at the MEP dollar exchange rate) to AR$25,000 per session. This means that it has remained largely accessible to the middle and upper classes, even as the country’s economy has cratered.
The indigent, who are at far greater risk, do not enjoy this luxury. Instead, they have to compete for limited resources in a system that is, in Etchevers’s estimation, underfunded, understaffed, and increasingly “colapsado” (“overwhelmed”).
“The comfortable sectors of Argentine society have more therapists for lesser issues,” he said. “There are fewer available professionals for those reliant on public institutions because mental health provisions are more scarce.”
Recent data trends confirm as much. According to the same UBA study, approximately 35% of respondents who believe they need psychiatric treatment couldn’t afford it, up from 20% the year before. Nearly 13% were unable to secure an appointment with a mental health professional, while an additional 9.6% indicated that they weren’t in treatment because their insurance plan didn’t cover the costs of a session. In 2021, those numbers were 3.6% and 4%, respectively.
“There is greater uncertainty, less perspective, and more negativity in the general population,” Etchevers added. “This generates more personal, work, and family problems, and life becomes more challenging.”
On October 22, a broad swath of the country exhaled as Economy Minister Sergio Massa topped his radical libertarian opponent by nearly 7% in the first round of Argentina’s presidential election. But even if Massa prevails in the runoff election later this month, he’s likely to inherit an Argentina in the throes of an emotional crisis no less pressing than its economic one.
As Etchevers put it, “Things are more arduous, and there’s more hopelessness.”