Plummeting oil prices, soaring inflation, and economic mismanagement have left Venezuela in a severe economic crisis. Widespread food and medicine shortages wreak havoc on the country’s 30 million people. In the midst of this crisis, Venezuelans struggling with mental illness and their families face enormous obstacles in obtaining adequate psychiatric care and medication.
Prior to the drop in oil prices and the death of President Hugo Chávez, state-run biomedical factories produced sufficient medication for the population. However, due to the devaluation of Venezuelan currency and the crumbling economy, the Venezuelan government is no longer able to purchase the materials required for medication production. The government cannot afford to import medication from other countries. As a result, about 85 percent of psychiatric medications are unavailable in Venezuela. The Venezuelan government forbids foreign governmental and non-governmental donations of food, medication, and supplies. Current President Nicolás Maduro refuses to recognize the country’s health crisis.
These shortages have severely affected Venezuela’s state-run psychiatric facilities. Facilities have had to release thousands of patients due to inability to feed, provide medication for, or care for the mentally ill. However, even when patients are released, their families, if alive, will often not accept them into their homes. In 2013, there were 23,630 long-term psychiatric patients in public hospitals. However, by 2015, only 5,558 patients remained in state care.
The patients that do remain in state hospitals suffer from lack of food and medication, poor hygiene, and other dangerous conditions. Reporters from The New York Times visited six psychiatric facilities throughout Venezuela and found inadequate conditions and lack of necessities at each. El Pampero Hospital, a state-run facility in Barquisimeto, has not employed a psychiatrist for two years. There is running water for only a few hours each day and food scarcity has caused patients to lose immense amounts of weight. The hospital has no soap, toothpaste, or other hygiene products. Dwindling supplies of sedatives, tranquilizers, and other medications have led otherwise stable patients to mentally and emotionally deteriorate. With few other options, hospital staff strip and lock suicidal and potentially violent patients in solitary confinement. Thousands of mentally ill patients, who previously thrived with adequate food, medication, and care, have quickly become incapacitated.
By failing to provide basic services to patients in its public hospitals and refusing any international aid, Venezuela violates the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Venezuela ratified the Convention in 2013, which includes protections for those who “have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.” Article 11 of the Convention requires States Parties to take “all necessary measures to ensure the protection and safety of persons with disabilities in situations of risk, including…humanitarian emergencies.” Additionally, Article 28 recognizes the right for persons with disabilities to have an adequate standard of living, including “adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions.” Further, these actions violate the Organization of American States Inter-American Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities, which Venezuela ratified in 2006. Article 3 of the Convention makes “treatment, rehabilitation, education, job training, and the provision of comprehensive services to ensure the optimal level of independence and quality of life for persons with disabilities” a priority for all States Parties. Venezuela’s own laws require the state to address the welfare of citizens with disabilities. In effect since 1993, Venezuela’s Law for the Integration of Disabled Persons mandates adequate healthcare and public institutions for persons with disabilities.
By refusing aid and failing to acknowledge the impact the financial crisis has had on public mental health facilities and their patients, Venezuela violates institutionalized persons’ rights. The widespread lack of food, medication, and hygienic supplies, combined with dilapidated facilities, deprives thousands of vulnerable people of stable and healthy lives. So long as the Venezuelan government ignores the economic crisis’ devastating effects on state-run psychiatric hospitals, there is little hope for improvement for patients residing within their walls.