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Argentine Mental Hospital's Talk Therapy Radio Helps Erase Stigma of Mental Illness


In Argentina, a unique radio program, broadcast from the grounds of a mental hospital with the patients as the principle participants, is drawing a large following. The talk therapy radio show not only helps patients deal with their problems, it also has served as outreach to family and friends, and helped to erase the stigma surrounding mental illness. The program has evolved into a popular feature on Argentina's radio landscape.

Radio La Colifata in Buenos Aires slang means 'Crazy Radio.' It bills itself as the first radio show in the world to broadcast live from a mental hospital.

On the grounds behind the rundown cement building that is the Borda Hospital, a makeshift radio studio is being set up under the shade of a large tree.

This Saturday afternoon, like every other for the past 14 years, about 100 patients and visitors are preparing for the live, six-hour broadcast. Julio Cesar is a former resident patient, who returns to the hospital for outpatient treatment that includes participating in the radio program.

Mr. Cesar says he admitted himself to the hospital 10 years ago, suffering from severe depression.

"I lost my daughter very young, only eight months old, and I sank into a depression," he says. "I did not want to work, live, eat or go out into the street. My family did not understand me."

Mr. Cesar was invited to take part in the radio program by Alfredo Olivera, a psychologist at the hospital, who is responsible for Radio La Colifata's coming into being. When friends at a community radio station asked to interview him about conditions at the hospital, he came up with the idea of interviewing the patients instead.

"I started without any money, without the support of the institution or technical resources," he adds. "I simply used a small Dictaphone. I invited some patients to sit around a table and speak about whatever they wanted. The only thing they had to do was, if they wanted to talk, they had to have the Dictaphone in their hand, and when they were finished, pass to another. This, as a concept, already had an element of therapy - the right to speak, and giving the right to another."

Cassettes of those interviews were transmitted on small community stations. The recordings attracted so many calls from listeners that they were soon picked up by network radio shows, and eventually, the hospital was equipped with facilities for live broadcasts.

Outside, the program has begun, and the microphone is being passed around from patient-to-patient. They recite poems, sing or just talk. They only give their first names to maintain their anonymity.

One young man, Jagger, is in tears as he takes the microphone.

Jagger says he has suffered too much in his life, and he does not believe that anything will get better, or that anyone cares. Mr. Olivera, the psychologist, will use these insights in private therapeutic sessions with Jagger.

Relatives also participate in the program. A visiting father, Yogy, tells Jagger not to close himself off from the world, that people are listening, and that he needs to be strong and to value himself.

Yogy's son, Bocha is a regular on the radio program. Yogy says his son's personality has been affected by a tumor, and being able to recite poems and sing songs he has written on the radio program helps his son.

In Argentinean society, a mentally ill member of the family is often considered shameful. Yogy says he sees many patients who do not receive visits from family. "There are many patients whose families abandon them here," he explains. "When they are diagnosed as 'crazy,' they feel that they are no longer of use. I often say that the warmth of family and relatives can help patients a lot to recover. Luckily, I am here for him. For the others, I see few families here. Sometimes I come during the week and there is no one here."

Julio Cesar says part of the radio's therapeutic aspect is the feeling of family it creates.

"Doctors are very technical," he notes. "They give a pill, and tell you, 'go and sleep,' and you are canceled; you cease to exist. The radio gives you the freedom to express yourself; it releases you. The medium of radio, because it is a way to communicate, can recover families. Relatives and friends have got back in touch with me, thanks to the radio. The radio breaks frontiers, the wall that surrounds the hospital no longer exists because the antenna knocks it down."

Although the radio was established as a means of therapy, it is broadcast beyond the hospital compound and has a broad following. Sections of the show have even been mixed into pop music, such as a song by singer Manu Chao. In downtown Buenos Aires, Radio La Colifata is about to go one step further, presenting its program on the television channel, Canal 7, as part of a health program.

Hugo Norberto Lopez is another of the patients involved in the project. He says he believes Radio Colifata plays an important educational role in society.

"It demystifies what the public thinks about mental illness, which many families hide, or are afraid of," he says. "For me, no, I see it the opposite. In my district, everyone congratulates me. I thought they would say, 'Hey look at the crazy guy,' but it is the opposite. They embrace me, and congratulate me for what I do. That makes me feel great. That shows that the people are beginning to understand."

The reach of the radio is growing. Not only on nationally broadcast Canal 7, but Radio La Colifata is also rebroadcast on local stations across Argentina to an estimated 12 million listeners.

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