Pandemic Poses Challenges for Argentines Seeking Therapy

Jul 21, 2020
5:56 PM

Psychologist María Clara Benítez text messages in the room where she attends patients online at her home during a government-ordered lockdown to curb the spread of the new coronavirus in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Monday, July 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)


BUENOS AIRES (AP) — Romina Caira has hidden in her bathroom, the door closed tightly so she doesn’t wake her 4-year-old daughter. Mariana Fevre finds privacy in her parked car or sitting in the stairwell of her apartment building.

Coronavirus quarantines pose a special challenge for Argentines seeking a quiet moment to talk their problems over with their therapist.

Finding private time for counseling is a problem around the world during the pandemic, but it is particularly acute in Argentina, which has the world’s highest number per capita of psychologists, according to World Health Organization statistics. With 223 per 100,000 residents, that’s more than double the number in Finland and many times more than France, with 48.7 per 100,000, and the U.S., with nearly 30.

The phenomenon is concentrated mostly in the capital, Buenos Aires, where it seems almost everyone has a therapist and weekly counseling sessions are as essential as food shopping or medical checkups. After more than four months of strict quarantine, Porteños, as the city’s residents are known in Argentina, are going to extreme lengths to get in their sessions in as much privacy as possible.

In the chill of the Southern Hemisphere’s fall and winter, Caira, a 46-year-old single mother, lays a sweater or coat on the closed toilet against the cold, puts on another over her pajamas, then sits there for 45 minutes talking to her therapist every Thursday morning.

“It was really strange at first,″ she said. “I would tell my psychologist, ‘I’m literally sitting on the toilet.'”

Fevre, a 37-year-old human resources manager, had to find ways to escape from her apartment and the demands of her infant daughter. When her husband returns from his job at a food-processing factory, she sits in the stairwell or in her car to talk to her psychologist.

“At first I thought, ‘This is like something out of the movies,‴ she said.

Argentina’s tradition of psychotherapy is rooted in its ties to Europe, which sent millions of immigrants to the country in the late 19th and 20th centuries.

The practice spread throughout Argentina in the 1940s and ’50s. Psychoanalysis was discouraged and persecuted during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship, then flourished again after the country’s return to democracy.

Some Argentines are in therapy for most of their adult life, while others use it to get through a difficult period and then stop. Therapy is affordable for much of the middle- and wealthier classes, often costing less than $30 per session.

Only narrowly defined categories of essential workers have been able to leave their homes in Buenos Aires since March 20, measures that are loosening to allow patients to visit psychologists in their offices starting on July 29. Such visits are already permitted in other areas of the country with relatively low numbers of coronavirus cases.

Argentina, with a population 44.5 million, has more than 123,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and more than 2.200 dead, lower numbers than many neighboring countries but still enough to prompt concern about whether to loosen anti-virus measures.

María Inés Sotelo, a member of the World Association of Psychoanalysis, said she was able to adapt swiftly to voice and video chats with her patients who are stuck at home, or wherever they could find privacy.

However, the Argentine Psychological Foundation and the country’s Association of Academic Psychology have been pushing the government to allow in-person sessions for patients with serious problems requiring face-to-face —if socially distanced— contact, said Jorge Biglieri, the dean of the School of Psychology at the University of Buenos Aires.

The school’s Center for Applied Social Psychology found in a study this month that Buenos Aires residents were suffering “deep cognitive-emotional exhaustion,″ due to isolation, inactivity and drops in income, with 65% of people saying they felt much or somewhat worse than before the pandemic. It said that 82% were in favor of psychologists opening their offices.

María Clara Benítez Caamaño, a specialist in cognitive and behavioral therapy, said psychologists often needed to see their patients’ expressions and gestures in person in order to properly treat problems as such as depression, eating disorders or phobias.

Medical student Sofia Azar, one of Benítez Caamaño’s patients, said she would go on her family’s balcony or in a bedroom and talk softly so as not to be heard.

She said she missed ’’being behind closed doors″ with her psychologist and doing relaxation exercises in Benítez Caamaño’s office. Another problem: her Wi-Fi signal kept cutting in and out, interrupting sessions at key moments.

Caira, the single mother, said the remote sessions were a big help in tough times, if not ideal.

“It’s much better to have 45 minutes by phone than nothing,″ she said.