Suicide is a real (and undiscussed) problem in Latin America

José Luis Zapata Palma’s body was found on Saturday. His cause of death was suicide. He is survived by his 8-month-old son, wife and grandmother in the pueblo of Limón 1, Tola, Rivas. José would have turned 21 years old yesterday. I had the pleasure of knowing him, and always found him to be a kind, respectful and affectionate person.

I naively always imagine depression as a first-world disease. Logically it makes sense that once you have enough food on the table and a functional roof, then internal and emotional problems have room to surface. Of course, this is ridiculous; they are completely different issues, and I wanted to raise awareness of this fact.

The most eye-opening research I found was an article by Colin Pritchard & Sarah Hean called Suicide & Undetermined Deaths Among Youths and Young Adults in Latin America, published in 2008. They state that suicide rates in Latin America are currently lower than in other regions of the world, but there is a prevalent cultural stigma against suicide in Latin America, which may account for “undetermined deaths” and “hidden suicides.”

According to Pritchard and Hean, if we assumed that half of “undetermined deaths” might be reassigned ‘suicides’, then the annual tolls are more daunting, and can be as few as 3,500 per year in these “lower” countries. Such numbers far outweigh many national catastrophes. In countries with higher signs of poverty, suicide is not considered as a public health problem.

As elsewhere, the issue has never been more important or more urgent, especially for younger-aged males. In a study issued in 2000, Nicaraguan male “undetermined death” rates are significantly higher than those of females.

Suicide rates are increasing in Latin America, especially among teenagers and old people. Risk factors are the same in Latin America as in major developed countries. It is feared that the traditional cultural attitudes in the majority of Latin American countries toward suicide leads to a denial of the problem and inadvertently may hinder preventive measures.

The article goes on to recommend that governments can and should review their services for younger-aged citizens “to stem the toll” of death by suicide. Many Governments of the major developed countries have recognized that suicides are often preventable and have made commitments to try and reduce these devastative issues. In the U.S., these services include research on statistics, increased access to mental health parity and addiction equity as well as early intervention programs.

Does anyone know of any local Nicaraguan prevention programs in schools, health clinics, or even online Spanish-language sources?

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention hosts local awareness campaigns in policy updates and advocation. In addition, the AFSP offers real-time advice for those struggling with depression, allies looking to help someone in need or cope with suicide loss, including ideas how to honor a loved one specifically or with raising awareness actions.

The following are direct quotes from their website: “Suicide is complicated, and it almost always leaves many questions unanswered. Often, we never learn exactly why our loved one took their life. But we can find help to find our way through this tragedy and support to go on living our own lives. We know that suicide is the tragic outcome of a serious underlying illness combined with a complicated mix of individual circumstances. It is not a sign of moral weakness. It does not reveal a character flaw. It is not a sign of irresponsibility, or a hostile act. It should not be a source of shame. There is no set rhythm or timeline for healing. Each person grieves at his or her own pace and in his or her own way. Be patient with yourself and those around you. It takes time to heal.”

The AFSP hosts an annual program called International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day. This year, it will take place on Saturday, Nov. 22.

In general, I have always been in awe of Nicaraguan grieving process. When I first moved to Granada, I would see processions midday, pacing down the streets. I have helped stock and then attend velas for lost parents and infants. The amazing immediate support of the community is present as we gathered everything needed, from chairs, to coffee, smelling salts, and shared time with our heads bowed. I have never felt so much part of a community as I have while keeping vigil surrounded by such love for the deceased. Perhaps by sharing this article with you, I hope to raise awareness of the issue with the potential to decrease the possibility of death by suicide continuing on an upward slope.

It’s far easier for me to talk about facts and numbers than face the raw gut feelings that arise while grieving the loss of a much liked, respected father, coworker and friend. I send much love to him and of course, other who are grieving José Luis.

Que en paz descanses, José. TQM.

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About Calley Prezzano
Calley Prezzano

Calley Prezzano was classically trained in San Francisco, California. She has cooked in Michelin Star Restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area and was the founding Executive Chef of Jicaro Ecolodge in Granada, Nicaragua. She is the founding Executive Chef of La Finca y El Mar Restaurant in Rancho Santana in Tola, Nicaragua. (

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