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Why are Chileans so unhappy?

Chile has high rates of suicide and depression. Yet its living standards are good. So why are Chileans depressed?

A homeless man in Valparaiso, Dec. 24,2008. (Eliseo Fernandez/Reuters)

SANTIAGO, Chile — Franco Carcuro seemed to have it all going for him. The 32-year-old son of a well-known TV sports commentator led a quiet life and had a successful career as sports director at a private university. But last September, he went up to the 10th floor of his apartment building and jumped.

Carcuro’s death was not exceptional: suicide is the leading cause of death among men between 20 and 44 years of age in Chile, according to the Health Ministry. Among women the same age, it is the second cause after traffic accidents. (In the U.S., it was the 11th cause of the death in 2006, according to the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health.)

Like more than 20 percent of the Chilean population, Carcuro suffered from depression. The country has unusually high rates of depression, particularly in the capital Santiago. Daily consumption of antidepressants in Chile rose by more than 470 percent between 1992 and 2004, says a study published last year in the Chilean Medical Gazette.

But the United Nations' Human Development Index ranks Chile as the best country in which to live in all of Latin America. The index measures three main aspects of human development: living a long and healthy life, receiving education and having a decent standard of living. This year’s ranking placed Chile 44 among 182 nations.

So why are Chileans so depressed?

“We are moving toward better standards of living and Chileans are having a hard time adapting. The hyper-demands, traumas, competition and access to top technologies are posing problems that Chileans are struggling to deal with,” said Dr. Mario Quijada, a psychologist and former president of the Chilean Association of Mental Health.

Day-to-day rhythms of life with all its demands, especially in the capital, are weighing on the Chilean conscious. Workers endure long work hours — officially 45 hours a week, but often more. And for blue-collar workers, the stressful daily routine in the capital is compounded by the several extra hours they spend getting to and from their jobs on overcrowded buses or the metro.

Chileans regularly complain that the time and energy left for family life, recreation and even sex is far too scarce. As almost everywhere, it is worse for women who continue with domestic chores after work.

With average wages low and the constant pressure to match up with neighbors in material goods or appearances, as well as authentic aspirations for a better life, Chileans have become massively indebted over the past decade, either with consumer debts, mortgages or bank loans. Stable income for the 40 percent of the population who are independent or sporadic workers is unattainable.