“Hello, crazies!” a radio host greets his live audience on a chilly fall afternoon at Hospital Borda, a psychiatric ward in Buenos Aires. About 50 people, both patients and visitors, sit calmly on white plastic lawn chairs arranged in a circle, listening to the host and raising their hands for a chance to share.
“I am a crazy person among crazies,” one woman says when it is her turn. “But I feel protected in a place where we are all the same.” The group claps to show their support.
These conversations are broadcast throughout the country as part of Radio La Colifata, the first radio show in the world produced inside a psychiatric hospital. Psychologist Alfredo Olivera started the program in 1991 as a way for patients to reclaim their voices and shatter stereotypes about mental health. For 25 years, Radio La Colifata has produced a counter narrative to mainstream representations of mental institutions. Whereas mental health patients around the world are often pushed to the fringes of society, Radio La Colifata allows them to share their stories on their own terms. In turn, Argentines can understand mental illness by catching a glimpse of life inside Hospital Borda. Since Radio La Colifata began, more than 50 radio stations from Europe to Asia have replicated its model.
“Some people are scared of psychiatric hospitals because this is the image they sell in TV shows and movies,” said Fernando Aquino, former Hospital Borda patient and long-time Radio La Colifata participant. “What happens in a psychiatric hospital is normally totally closed and secret.” This isolation leads to misunderstanding, said Aquino, and thus generates fear.
Patients at Hospital Borda are treated for psychiatric disorders ranging from anxiety to schizophrenia. Some are released after a few months, but others stay for years. The public hospital has treated mental health patients in Buenos Aires for more than 150 years. Its future is now threatened by a potential development project.
In Argentina, laying down on a couch and sharing problems with a psychologist is the norm
In Argentina, laying down on a couch and sharing problems with a psychologist is the norm. The South American nation has one of the highest concentrations of practicing psychologists per resident in the world, more than 200 per 100,000 people, according to a 2012 study, compared to 33 per 100,000 people in the U.S. In Argentina, psychotherapy is seen as a tool for personal development. But having a psychiatric diagnosis still leads to social isolation.
“It’s true that there is a certain normalization of psychoanalysis [in Argentina] in the form of therapists, but people continue to reject people with a psychiatric diagnosis,” said psychologist Victoria Noguera, who supervises the Saturday radio sessions. “In this way, Argentina is not much different from other countries.”
At these Saturday sessions, a microphone is passed around, giving everyone their turn to speak, a privilege not always granted to patients being treated for mental illness whose thoughts, feelings, and opinions are often discredited for being irrational.
“This is a space that tries to accommodate people with different ways of being and existing in this world,” Noguera said. “It does this by creating communication with others” outside of Hospital Borda.