San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Father fights for suicide prevention center

Domingo Abarca’s 24-year-old son, Luis Alonso, committed suicide in 2008. Abarca never stops dwelling on that moment, wondering if he could have done something to prevent it. 

“When you lose a loved one to suicide, you feel like you’ve been stripped of everything. When it happens, two things come to your mind: you can either commit suicide yourself or try, through your suffering, to prevent others from suffering like you,” Abarca said.

Abarca channeled his energy toward helping others. Can most suicides be prevented? Abarca thinks so. He says he missed the opportunity to help his only son, and too many signs went unnoticed. 

“It was too late when I realized that many of his gestures and words were his own way of crying out for help,” Abarca said. 

Since then, Abarca has devoted his time to creating more awareness about suicide prevention campaigns in Costa Rica. Last year, with help from Citizen Action Party (PAC) lawmaker Victor Hernández, Abarca held the first legislative forum on suicide prevention, which brought lawmakers together with medical and criminology professionals and members of victims’ families.

At the forum, Abarca presented his book, “The Suicide Odyssey: In Memory of Luis Alonso.” Last Friday, Abarca organized a second legislative forum on the issue and presented a second book, “The Suicide Taboo.” 

In the past 10 years, more than 3,000 people committed suicide in Costa Rica. Between 2006 and 2009, the average increased to more than two each day. Statistics from the Judicial Branch show that half of those who committed suicide were unemployed; 86 percent were men. 

But those statistics, which are compiled by the Judicial Investigation Police, do not paint a comprehensive picture. Based on police investigations, they show that only 8.6 percent of suicides were related to a diagnosed mental illness, and only 5 percent were caused by clinically diagnosed depression. 

Nevertheless, Abarca is alarmed by the statistics that do exist on suicide, and he wants to create a national institute of suicide prevention to address the issue. With the support of PAC lawmaker Hernández, Abarca’s dream is gaining traction. Hernández has promoted the institute’s creation among his colleagues for the past year. 

“I felt concerned about the issue of suicide even before I became a lawmaker,” Hernández said. “As a professor at the University of Costa Rica, I saw the problems that students have to go through, that quite often pushed them into depression.”

Last year, Hernández drafted a bill to create the institute. It currently is up for discussion in the assembly’s Social Affairs Commission. “I am very optimistic that this project will become a reality next year,” Hernández said. 

But there are social barriers to progress on the issue. According to Hernández, suicide is still a somewhat taboo subject in Costa Rican society. And that means that public officials and institutions haven’t responded sufficiently. 

Hernández’s proposal is to create a multidisciplinary institution with professionals from several public institutions. “To avoid raising public spending, the bill proposes that doctors, psychologists, sociologists and other public employees be transferred from other institutions if they can be of more help in the suicide prevention institute,” Hernández said.

For Mauricio Campos, a psychiatrist and coordinator of the suicide prevention program at the Costa Rican Association of Psychiatry, creating an institute for suicide prevention and counseling should be a government priority. 

“The country needs to start seeing suicide as a public health issue,” he said. “Public institutions and the public need to question why [suicide] rates are increasing at the speed they have been in recent years.” 

Most people who attempt suicide never make it to Campos or his colleagues for treatment. No official protocol exists to make sure people get help when they need it, even after suicide attempts, he said. 

In 2004, Campos led a study at Desamparados High School, in the southern San José suburbs, that focused on self-destructive behavior by students, including suicide, drug addiction and violence, among others. Some 500 students were evaluated with standardized psychiatric testing to determine if symptoms of depression existed. Of those, 88 students said they were suicidal, and 27 students said they had attempted suicide in the previous year. 

The same study was held in Aserrí, a mountain town south of San José, and showed that 20 percent of 232 students were at risk of committing suicide. The study is repeated each year, with the aim of raising awareness. 

“In most cases, people who commit suicide are not sick,” Abarca said. “External factors pressure them into seeing their own death as a way of dealing with their problems.” 

Abarca and Hernández plan to call the new center the “Forest of Hope,” a reference to Dante’s “Inferno.” 

“My goal is to get rid of the idea of the ‘Forest of Suicidal People’ … and replace it with the ‘Forest of Hope,’ where suicide victims are remembered for their lives and achievements,” said Abarca.

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