Irene Caselli is a multimedia journalist based in Buenos Aires. She previously worked as a correspondent for the BBC in Venezuela and Ecuador. She reports from Latin America for media including the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Guardian.
Broadcast from inside a mental hospital, Buenos Aires' Radio La Colifata challenges preconceptions about mental illness.
Silvina and Eduardo know too well the difference between "inside" and "outside."
As former inpatients of Argentina's largest psychiatric hospital, they have experienced the stigma attached to those who are confined inside it, and the difficulty of building a new life outside.
But once a week, they go back inside the hospital for a few hours to present a radio show, and the difference becomes blurrier.
Breaking down those categories is one of the aims of Radio La Colifata, the first radio station to broadcast from inside a mental hospital. Set up in 1991, "Loony Radio" goes live from inside Hospital Borda in southern Buenos Aires every Saturday afternoon. (Colifato means anything from mentally unstable to eccentric in the Lunfardo slang spoken in Argentina's capital.)
Over the years, the show has become a healing space for former inpatients, who now represent the majority of participants, and current ones too.
"I love La Colifata like my own family," says Eduardo. "It feels good here. It's very therapeutic."
The talk show goes live from the inner courtyard of the hospital, under the shade of large trees and a mosaic that says Siempre fui loco ("I have always been crazy"), a reference to an album of music produced to raise funds for the project.
During the week, the program is remixed and rebroadcast in several formats, together with music, to feed a 24-hour internet radio station as well as a radio frequency. Listeners—millions have tuned in, but there are now about 1,000 regulars—call in or send comments via social networks.
On a recent Saturday, the microphone goes to Adir. He is 18 and comes from Peru. He has been at the hospital for a few months. He gets to go out on a regular basis to see friends and girlfriends. "I love Argentine women," he says.
He asks the crowd whether they think he should go back to Peru, to be with his family, or stay in Argentina. Federico, who now lives outside, picks up the other microphone. He tells Adir his dilemma is common and, suggesting that music might inspire him, segues to a Spanish-language version of The Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" Others break into a dance.
When the song is over, psychologist Victoria Noguera, who coordinates the discussion, provides on-the-spot counseling for Adir before passing on the mic to another colifato.
"There are different ways of thinking about mental health. It is not only about psychiatric treatment, which is what hospitals offer," Noguera says. Data collected over the years shows that former inpatients who attend the weekly shows have been readmitted at a much lower rate than those who aren't involved.
"La Colifata creates encounters and cooperation, which is the opposite of confinement and exclusion promoted by the environment," says Noguera, who has been a coordinator at the radio since the departure of founder Alfredo Olivera.
Olivera calls in during the show from Paris, where he now works as a consultant for other projects inspired by La Colifata. He remains the project's director, but to some of the former inpatients, he is more like a father.
The program began as an experiment when Olivera was a psychology student, and paid regular visits to the hospital for his research. One day he recorded several patients on a Dictaphone. He edited the recordings and passed them on to friends at a radio station, who aired them. The spots were so successful that they were picked up by commercial radio stations and the show was born. It eventually grew into an independent radio station, funded via private donations and government grants.
Olivera believes La Colifata has had far-reaching consequences in Argentina, beyond the clinical outcomes for patients. The radio has created an exchange between inside and outside, with outsiders calling in or coming to visit, and insiders challenging common assumptions about mental illness.
Marina Maddaleni, a therapist who supports La Colifata's work, agrees.
"People think that mentally ill people are constantly delirious, but that is not the case. Depending on their [condition], they can sustain very logical, coherent, and informed conversations, and that surprises people 'outside,'" she says.
Over the years, the experiment has been replicated in other countries, such as France, Spain, and Italy, and celebrities have come in person to take part in the show: among them, director Francis Ford Coppola and the French singer Manu Chao, who recorded and produced several albums in support of the radio station (Siempre fui loco is one).
The radio's surprise success contributed to a public debate that eventually led to a new law on mental health. Human rights groups had long denounced abuse and neglect in Argentina's psychiatric hospitals. The new legislation, approved in 2010, prohibits the creation of new psychiatric hospitals and provides for their gradual replacement by alternative forms of treatment. Institutionalization will be considered a last resort. After signing the law, President Cristina Fernández received a delegation from La Colifata.
Hospital Borda now faces possible closure. Implementation of the new law has been slow, and the future remains uncertain for patients; so far the only alternative treatment centers are private and expensive.
La Colifata's organizers are determined to carry on and are working to create an outside recording space. While an outside studio won't help current inpatients, at least it will continue to provide support for people like Silvina and Eduardo. They may struggle with mental health issues, but in La Colifata, they have found a place of acceptance—one that has made other places more accepting, too.
"Prejudice will always continue existing, but La Colifata helped minimize it," Maddaleni says.