GIRON, ECUADOR — His seventh-grade teacher was discussing family values last month when Jaime Castillo startled his classmates by bursting into tears. They knew that the 13-year-old hadn't seen his father since he left for the United States three years ago and that he was depressed about it, but he wasn't the kind of child to cry in public.
The next day, his friends' surprise turned to shock when they learned he had gone home and swallowed a packet of rat poison. Only quick action by his mother and doctors at a clinic saved his life.
"His mother takes good care of him, but his father is in another part of the world," said friend Jose Abel Avila, 14, who also lives in this town surrounded by lush, steep mountains that bring to mind Switzerland in the summertime. "He sends money, but it can't take the place of affection."
The southern province of Azuay has sent more emigrants to the United States and Europe than any other region in Ecuador. The exodus of young fathers, and lately mothers, has had devastating consequences for the youths they leave behind.
Profit and loss
A sharp increase in adolescent suicides as well as teenage pregnancies, alcoholism, car wrecks and declining school performance represent the dark side of Ecuador's migration phenomenon. Although the flight of as many as 20% of its citizens over the last few decades has created an economic windfall totaling $2 billion a year in remittances, the social costs have been high.
"Fifteen years ago, youth suicides were unheard of," said Guido Pinos, a psychiatry professor at the university in Cuenca, the provincial capital. "Now they have become a kind of fashion, or what we in psychiatry term a 'model,' to follow to escape from conflict, from being uncared for or feeling abandoned."
Pinos said that in 2006, youth suicides in Azuay rose 20% from the previous year, and he estimated that the province's overall suicide rate was at least twice the world average of about 12 per 100,000. In towns such as Giron and neighboring Santa Isabel, which have seen an exodus of men, the rate is eight times the global norm as calculated by the World Health Organization, health officials say.
"Sixty percent of adult males have left this municipality. As a result, families fall apart," said Claudia Romero, a social worker in Santa Isabel. Suicides in her town last year included those of a 10-year-old boy and a 9-year-old girl, she said.
Miguel Penafiel, director of Vicente Corral Moscoso Hospital in Cuenca, said that although other countries with a pattern of emigration to the United States and Europe also see suicides, he thinks Ecuador's rate is higher because social disintegration is more pronounced here.
"There are many destroyed families here, as many as 20% in some towns, by which I mean you have children living without either parent," Penafiel said.
Elizabeth Jimenez, a psychologist with the Waaponi Foundation of Cuenca, a youth counseling group, said suicides might be high because Ecuador is one of the world's "saddest countries."
"When people get depressed in the country, they listen to sad music and consume alcohol. It's a lamentable social characteristic," she said.
The suicides cut across class lines, affecting children who receive significant amounts of money from their absent parents and those who do not. Affluence is evident here in Azuay, which receives an estimated $800 million a year in remittances from its native sons and daughters and has a profusion of nice cars and two-story houses.
"Despite the resources they may be getting from their parents, the youths are missing someone and something," said Jose Manuel Usca, a Roman Catholic priest in Giron. "They don't think it makes sense to fight for their future and ... they don't value what they have. Going where their parents are is all that matters."
'A lack of values'
School officials such as Maria Villa Sanchez, principal of the town's National Technical High School, are struggling to cope. Over the last year, she said, three of her 407 students, all 15-year-old boys, attempted suicide. She acknowledges she is at a loss.
"What you see in the kids is a lack of values. They talk to teachers with an aggressivity you never heard before," Villa Sanchez said, adding that 60% of her students have one or both parents living abroad. "I have asked for a team of psychologists, for more teacher training. The problem is that the parents are far away, and those who are left behind have to deal with the consequences."
The surge in suicides coincides with an explosion in Ecuadorean emigration that began more than seven years ago after a financial crisis caused bank failures, widespread unemployment and poverty. Although Ecuadoreans have left the country in a steady stream since World War II, the 1999 crisis pushed unprecedented numbers to seek better lives abroad.