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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?

And in the midst of all of this is the fact that income distribution in Chile is one of the worst in the world, breeding resentment and frustration when the enormous effort of keeping up with life does not bear the expected fruits.

For Patricio Montes, 56, it’s the pressure of social ladder-climbing that has Chileans sick. “We live in an environment in which people feel pressured to succeed. We compete with our neighbors and get indebted to show what we don’t have. And if you fail, you have to hide it and act as if nothing is wrong."

Montes has been in treatment for depression for about a year with medication and therapy mainly as a result of frustration stemming from many years of unstable work, long periods of unemployment and economic hardship.

“I would spend all day sleeping and I didn’t want to see anyone. I closed in on myself. Now I am recovering, but I still need to be pushed into action,” he said.

Women are much more vulnerable to depression, statistics suggest. But it is men who take their own lives more often — about five times more than women, said Quijada.

This is no contradiction. “Actually, many more women than men try to commit suicide, but they use different methods. Women usually resort to overdose, but men go straight to more lethal — and effective — means: they jump from buildings or shoot or hang themselves,” he said.

Teenagers are following a perilous trend as well. Up to 21 percent of 13- to 15-year-old girls and 8 percent of boys the same age have seriously considered killing themselves, according to a “Global School-based Student Health Survey” conducted by Chilean officials in four regions around the country. About 16 percent had actually planned it.

In 2006, depression rose to such high proportions that it was included in a public health program called AUGE that guarantees free or low-cost health care for a set of chronic illnesses in public and private health centers.

Since then, depression has become the fourth most frequent illness of the 56 covered by AUGE and is the reason behind one-third of patients who seek help in primary health centers.

The Health Ministry has also developed a Mental Health Unit especially focused on the most vulnerable to depression: teenagers, women and the elderly. But a major problem with these programs is the acute lack of psychologists and psychiatrists working in the public health system. Most migrate to the private sector in search of better salaries, working conditions and benefits.

Rising depression rates might not just be a reflection of the times, but also of better bookkeeping and statistics, said Irma Rojas, an expert on suicide and depression at the Health Ministry.

“Including depression in AUGE has allowed a systematic record of cases both in the public and private health systems," she said. "At the same time, the population in general has become more aware that depression is an illness that requires seeing a doctor to receive treatment."