Now, thousands of mental health patients — many of whom had been living relatively normal lives under medication — are drifting into despair and psychosis because the country has run out of the vast majority of psychiatric medicines, leaving families and doctors powerless to help them, medical experts say.
Mental institutions have released thousands of patients because they can no longer treat them, according to physicians. The patients still being cared for now suffer in crumbling wards that can barely even feed them. Doctors and nurses fear violent attacks and say they have little choice but to tie their patients to chairs, lock them up or strip them of their clothes to prevent suicides.
Food shortages had left one older schizophrenic man emaciated, like a walking skeleton in a concentration camp. An epileptic man bereft of medication fell into repeated seizures, while another untreated patient lay strapped to a bed, bound at the ankles. An older woman with no drugs to control her schizophrenia crawled across the floor, past a hungry patient eating fruit that had fallen into a pool of open sewage.
But most patients around the country are in the hands of families like the Simeones, doctors say. Family members must choose between going to work and watching over their loved ones. It is a life of searching for increasingly rare drugs, desperately hoping their relatives do not harm themselves, or others, the moment someone looks away.
“When I heard that he could hurt his brother, that broke me,” said Evelin de Simeone, Accel’s mother, recounting the day in June her son grabbed the electric grinder.
Venezuela, the country with the largest oil reserves in the world, once produced most of its own pharmaceutical drugs. In the early 2000s, the president at the time, Hugo Chávez, began a broad nationalization of Venezuelan drugmakers in an effort to produce cheaper medicines. Foreign companies like Pfizer and Eli Lilly filled in the gaps by shipping drugs.