When Mariana (14 years old) was prescribed a medicine for her kidneys, the doctor’s warning “may make you sleepy and dizzy” was more of an idea than a precaution. After five months of treatment, and thirty consecutive days of self-harm, she assumed that her life “was beyond her.” “I felt alone. I had no friends around because of the pandemic. Yes, she was on the phone with them, but a chat is not the same as being in class. I just wanted to stop feeling.” On Wednesday, November 30, she kissed her grandparents goodnight, she went up to her room and took 130 pills. “All the ones I had left,” she says. The next thing she remembers is waking up in a hospital after spending a day in a coma. “I died for seconds. But I failed. What I wanted is to die forever.”
The pandemic put the mental health of many in check. The children, in addition, were deprived of face-to-face school for almost two years; a parenthesis that not only affected the academic side. The school is the space in which the necessary alarms are turned on and the routes for the prevention and detection of domestic violence and mental health problems of minors are set in motion. “All this was broken by covid,” explains Carolina Piragauta, national coordinator of the Colombian emergency psychology network Colpsic during the pandemic and director of Psychology at the Universidad Libre. “Although there are no rigorous records yet of the impact that the confinement had on the little ones, we know that the cases of self-harm and suicidal tendencies doubled and even tripled. They were so frequent that we had to psychologically accompany the guidance teachers because they were overwhelmed. They knew of new cases of minors at risk or already with an outbreak every week.”
The figure of the guidance teacher is present in all district schools in the country. Their role is to train children and adolescents in values and accompany their psychological process. Although they are a sort of psychologist, they are not required to be. “Even a physiotherapist can be,” says Piragauta. “Many did not have the tools for everything that came with the pandemic.” His team trained more than 6,000 counselors during covid. “We were not prepared.”
That lack was noticed by Julieta, 14, who, like Mariana, prefers not to reveal her real identity. This girl with short hair and full lips criticizes that virtual school has become “asking for homework and assignments.” The last episode of her makes her doubt; She doesn’t know whether to conjugate the verb cut in the present or the past. “I haven’t done it for a little while,” she sums it up. “I promised never to do it again, but I couldn’t hold back. I feel guilty for the people who love me. But I know there are ways to distract myself like reading, listening to music, or talking to my friends.” Her daily commitment is focused on not resetting the counter to zero.
His skin retains the imprint of this last chapter. “It was like always, I did it in an area where my clothes could cover me, I didn’t want to attract attention. I was doing it because I really felt better, ”she whispers before brushing aside the sleeve of the uniform and revealing her left shoulder with a score of scars. She looks away. “I regret”.
“It’s a system failure”
The lack of detailed mental health data was already a problem before the pandemic, but covid further crippled this tally. According to Legal Medicine, 445 minors committed suicide in 2019 and 278 in 2020. Although a decrease was noted in the years of the pandemic, Pedro Ochoa, president of Colpsic, points out that it is because the confinement prevented access to solitude to carry it finished. “The same thing happens with detections of children at risk. That the figures are low is not a good sign at all, it is only a reflection of the underreporting that exists and the failure of school routes. The consequence is that there are thousands of cases in the country that we are not even aware of. It’s a system failure.”
In the department of Bogotá alone, 4,833 children had suicidal thoughts or attempted suicide in 2019, according to data provided by the Ministry of Education. 3,093, in 2020. Data from the National Mental Health Bulletin also show a noticeable decrease in registration. The year before the pandemic, 28,000 children showed mental and behavioral disorders. In 2020 and 2021, it was cut in half.
I didn’t want to attract attention. I cut myself because I really felt better
Juliet, 14 years old
The first time Mariana felt relief from the pain was when her stepfather hit her mother. “I didn’t see it, my little brother told me and I felt so guilty… I cut my arms diagonally, with the biggest knife I found in the kitchen. She did it to feel the physical pain and not the mental one”, she narrates, aware of the weight of each one of her words. She passed out from pain and shock. When she woke up, she poured lemon “to make it hurt more.” “Now I see it clearly and I know that I can ask for help. And that that is not the escape route from anything, but at that moment she just wanted to disappear ”.
The expression “escape route” and “only way out” are repeated over and over again in the stories of the young women interviewed. Monica Cuervo, a mental health expert at Save the Children Colombia, is also familiar with the expressions: “It has become the way to mitigate risk situations.” Although in the body they notice an upturn in these stories of self-harm, coined as cutting (cut, in English), they do not attribute it only to the covid. Violence in certain regions of the country, migration and lack of resources are also factors that trigger these behaviors. “We are also noticing an alarming use of psychoactive substances from the age of 11. A few years ago, they started at 15″, he points out by video call.
Julieta did it when she was 13 years old. Her friends and they strained vodka and brandy in the school water bottles. “At first I did it because I thought it was funny. But deep down it was because alcohol made me not be so present, ”she says in the stands of a basketball court, minutes after leaving class. That they were caught drinking in the classrooms was the first alarm of the girl’s parents. “But I had already cut myself several times before, I did it when I couldn’t control things.”
Mariana is small, she has a catchy laugh, the dark complexion and the maturity of someone who has lived too long. “When people know how I really am inside, nobody believes it. They think that because I laugh I’m not bad, ”he ditches. Julieta, also 14 years old, nods. Although they did not know each other, she joins them “the most real”.
They just got out of class. They cover the uniform shirt with a jacket and regret that hiding the pleated skirt is more difficult. The revelry outside the school seems to hide a parallel reality. In Bogotá, one in ten children has thought or wanted to harm themselves, according to the Ministry of Education.
For Piragauta, in addition to underreporting, there is a transversal evil that hinders guaranteeing the mental health of Colombians: stigma. “And one depends on the other. If I think that going to a psychologist is for crazy people, I don’t go. Here one always thinks that others need it, not us. And what happens is that patients arrive who have already had outbreaks or when the disease prevents them from continuing with their lives normally. Pedro Ochoa adds: “The only good thing that the pandemic brought is that it seems that we are removing the taboo; that talking about therapy is a little more normalized”.
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