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Suicides in the Amazon raise red flags on the mental health of Indians

Just as an epidemic, the cases of suicide amongst the indigenous Amazonian communities are on the rise. The frequent stories of a friend, a son or a brother are now common episodes in these regions.

According to figures of the Observatory on Child Welfare of the Colombian Family Welfare Institute (ICBF, for its Spanish Acronym) during the latest years, the Colombian provinces with greater number of suicides for every 100,000 inhabitants between 0 and 17 years of age are people of the indigenous communities. The provinces that led these statistics were Vaupés in 2008, Vichada in 2009, Guainía in 2010 and 2014, Amazonas in 2011 and 2015, Casanare in 2012 and Guaviare in 2013.

These figures double and quintuple the National Colombian average, which in 2015 was 0.6 cases for every 100,000 inhabitants, while in the Province of Vaupés it was 4.58 and 2.62 in Amazonas. The dimension and seriousness of this data is even more relevant if one considers that the total population does not even surpass 100,000 inhabitants.

“When we analyze the statistics we discover that the magnitude of the issue is much more complex and dramatic regarding the number of cases in the indigenous community. Behind every suicide there is a number or suicide attempts which produce a humanitarian alarm,” said Universidad Nacional de Colombia (UNal) in Amazonia Professor and Ph.D. in Amazonian Studies candidate Julio César Mancipe Moreno.

For several years Mancipe has gotten closer to the reality of the indigenous communities of the Amazon trying to find explanations and provide a comprehensive framework to try to explain what is behind the figures. This is why he has tried to unveil the human faces which are sometimes distorted by the statistics or go unnoticed among the cases that are not reported, are underrecorded or are recorded as “cause to be determined” at the Coroner's Office.

This has led Professor Mancipe to develop a process to understand the phenomenon and provide support and intervention services using traditional medicine for this population. This is one of the first approaches provided using psychology and anthropology, where the health institutions approach the situation blindly implementing protocols which are not pertinent.

Recovering ancestral knowledge

Abel Antonio Santos Angarita is a Tikuna Indian, linguist and UNal M.Sc. in Amazonian Studies and also a cultural promoter and advocate of the Amazonian indigenous tradition. He says that in a cosmovision view, a suicide is a situation which impacts the spiritual status of the individual that dies and the community to which he/she belongs.

“If a Tikuna dies he/she passes to another territory, passes to another life. But if a person commits suicide, he/she does not make the transition to this new world. He/she remains in a limbo, is tainted and looking for partners to commit another suicide,” said Santos.

It is then a chain of events that does not stop, so new victims appear every week, month or year that the cycle began. Stopping it is only in the hand of a Shaman, who knows how to manage and heal bodies, to spiritually and mentally calm the community.

This is only one of the explanations provided for the recurrent cases of suicides using the Tikuna cosmogony, one of the largest indigenous communities of the Colombian and Brazilian Amazon.

“In terms of space-territory, we have accompanied close to eight communities and reservations on the Amazon River. We had the particular opportunity to work intensely with the Tikuna communities of Nazaret and Puerto Esperanza,” said Mancipe, whom in the last months has had the opportunity to approach indigenous communities of the Province of Vaupés.

“Currently I am working in the city of Mitú, to try to analyze how this situation has been assessed and understood by the local institutions. Once the observation ends, I hope to try to see what intervention processes, with a traditional Indigenous perspective I can think of to use on these communities,” said Mancipe.

Definitely, in these contexts, the normal clinical psychology concepts of depression and schizophrenia seem to fall short to try to determine a situation where the beliefs of the population play an important role in how to manage historic and social situations which have transformed their lives since encountering the white man.

“The community faces a series of issues between being Indians or not amid a world which has completely different demands of what they had in their territory. In the end, living in a social, economic and even personal development void are amongst the causes that lead Indigenous community members to commit suicide, particularly young people,” he added.

According to UNal-Amazon Professor and Co-Director of Mancipe’s doctoral thesis Carlos Franky, these transformations contribute to and affect the mental health of the indigenous communities, producing high suicide rates, high alcohol consumption, and drug use. “This without considering that in Colombia the indigenous communities have been very impacted by the before and after of the peace agreement with the guerrillas, in terms of forced displacement, territorial expropriation, and sexual violence,” said Franky.

Obtain they own healing

This project began as a research participative process where Professor Mancipe approached the communities and becamepart of their daily lives and customs, beyond providing a research project.

According to Psychoanalyst and also thesis Co-Director Jairo Báez, the purpose has been trying to discover what lies behind every suicide, which does not necessarily coincide with the common causes of the western population. “This led us to question the practices, techniques, and instruments from the hegemonic psychology perspective, proper of a European and American environment, which we generally tend to apply,” he said.

“We approached the leaders, Shamans and particularly the families who had dealt with suicide attempts or suicide cases with the intention of trying to improve the situation and provide a basic psychological analysis which would provide us tools particular to this community and which they (the indigenous communities) have managed using traditional medicine. In this manner, we wanted to empower them and for them to develop their own healing processes,” he said.

“In the two communities we managed to advance this comprehensive exercise, they began taking autonomous decisions, independent from the institutions and the knowledge they have been fed from the outside. They began to provide traditional medicine solutions and recover traditional practices and reduce the suicide rate almost to zero in the following months of our cooperation,” said Mancipe.

Such is the case of Puerto Esperanza and some neighboring communities, where at the end of 2016 and beginning of 2017 there were eight cases of attempted suicide and three suicides among young Indians. With these communities they managed to provide support in collaboration with Red Vida, a group of professionals, indigenous activists and Capuchin brothers, who with exercises, empowering families and the community tried to balance the situation of spiritual and physical violence.

Another important case was in the community of Nazareth, wherein 2017 they had five suicide attempts, one fatal. “There we also helped reduce the suicide rate, thanks to our work with the curacas, shamans, women, and youngsters, and especially the active voices of the grandparents who are the living soul of their traditions,” he added.

These small advances begin to provide a bit of a solution. “Yesterday another person committed suicide not far away from where I am. More than just a number, another story for these communities that have more than their share of stories to tell” said the researcher.

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