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Inside Venezuela’s Crumbling Mental Hospitals

The state-run psychiatric hospital here in Barquisimeto, Venezuela, has long been a forgotten place, filled with forgotten people.

But with Venezuela suffering from a severe economic crisis, this mental institution has almost no drugs to control the afflictions tormenting its patients.

At the invitation of doctors, reporters from The New York Times visited six psychiatric wards across the country. All reported shortages of medicine, even food.

The one here, El Pampero Hospital, hasn’t employed a psychiatrist in two years. It has running water for only a few hours a day, and food is scarce. Omar Mendoza, pictured above, is one of many undernourished patients. He lost half his weight this summer and is down to about 75 pounds.

The glue that keeps this hospital in order — the sedatives, tranquilizers and medications — is nearly all gone. In courtyards, women who are functional while medicated are now curled on the floor hallucinating, crying, screaming, rocking back and forth for hours.

The doctors and nurses here are aghast at what is taking place, caught between anger and feelings of helplessness.

The nursing staff debates daily: Who gets the few remaining pills? Who is the most unstable, or suffering the most? They reduce doses, doling out pills into small metal cups with the fluidity of Las Vegas casino dealers.

El Pampero also suffers from shortages of basic personal-care and cleaning supplies. There is no soap, no shampoo, no toothpaste, no toilet paper. Patients relieve themselves in the common areas and patio area, and clean themselves only with water.

Nurses fear that patients in the men’s ward are more likely to become violent when they are unmedicated. Two of the men in this photograph murdered members of their families before their schizophrenia was diagnosed. One decapitated his mother, and the other stabbed his stepfather.

We found Cleofila Carillo crying softly under a mosquito net. The morning before, her unmedicated bunkmate had leapt on top of her, beaten her, bitten off her nose and eaten it. Doctors said she needed full reconstructive surgery, but because of the shortages, they did not have the medical supplies to perform it. All they could do was apply a bandage.

Without sedatives, nurses say, they must restrain patients or lock them in isolation cells to keep them from harming themselves. That is what happened to Raul Martínez, who was suffering a psychotic episode. A nurse tied him to a gurney.

Patients eat three times a day, but there is never enough food from the government. Members of the hospital staff solicit donations during their time off. Medical records show that over half of the patients in the men’s ward are underweight.

Patricia Couto