- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 9, 2007

BUENOS AIRES

In Argentina, the mentally ill are using radio as therapy.

“Radio La Colifata FM 100.1! The first radio station to transmit from a psychiatric hospital!” an announcer shouts into a microphone at Buenos Aires’ Jose Borda Neuropsychiatric Hospital. He pushes up the volume as the Beatles belt out “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah.”

Radio La Colifata — whose name derives from the Argentine slang word “colifa” or “crazy one” — began 15 years ago to help patients communicate with their peers, to carry their voices beyond the hospital walls and to break down public misconceptions and prejudices about the mentally ill.

The four-hour program, begun with taped segments sent to a local station, goes live every Saturday. It can be heard across the Argentine capital, an area that is home to 10 million people. It also is heard via the Internet on more than 30 radio stations in Argentina and elsewhere in Latin America. Stations worldwide can download segments from the station’s Web site.

“This radio station has opened up a space for people to recover their dignity, to have their own say and to speak over the radio and find a new place in their community,” says Radio La Colifata’s founder, psychologist Alfredo Olivera.

Veronica Rubens, a psychologist with no ties to the radio station, lauded the idea. “Many of them are shut up inside the hospital and cannot go out. So this is a good way for people to express themselves and insert themselves into society.”

On a recent Saturday, dozens of patients wandered the grassy compound of drab buildings. Some mumbled, and one shouted angrily. Some were disheveled and bandaged; others chain-smoked.

At the radio command center — a simple wooden table, a mixing board and microphones — a patient wrote a neat list of a dozen programs that would air that day: news, sports, police reports, poetry, interviews.

Guided by Mr. Olivera and his team, the patients began transmitting.

On this day, patients swapped the microphone to discuss “happiness.” For one patient, it was friends, for another a new sports car or a succulent seafood dinner.

The program is an eclectic mix and includes interviews, music, poetry and storytelling. The level of discourse on current events sometimes shows a logic and civility often absent from commercial radio shows.

One outpatient, Julio, spent a year in the hospital and said the program keeps him sane.

“For many on the inside, the walls are impenetrable barriers, and the only way to get out is via the microphone,” he said. “But people are listening, and that surprised us all. Listeners have e-mailed back from Bolivia, Mexico, even Spain.”

Volunteers also participate, including two young women who played the drums. Many patients danced gleefully, and one man pulled a toy cap gun from his pocket as if to fire to the beat of a song.

Fernando, another patient, said the program helps break the stereotype of the mentally ill. Mr. Olivera, who started the radio show, requested that Fernando and the other patients not be fully identified to safeguard their privacy.

“A person with psychiatric problems is still a person who thinks, a person who wants to live peacefully on the outside again,” Mr. Olivera says. “Yes, there are people who have been here 30 years or more with little possibility of recovery, but there are also many who are going through therapy in order to leave.”

He added that radio breaks the silence.

“In the hospital here, there’s a lot of silence. Many here are on medication, and there’s not a lot of talk or contact. But this medium is a way to speak among ourselves,” he says.

Some, such as 47-year-old patient Juan Carlos, perform eloquently, coaxing Chopin from an acoustic guitar one minute, a rousing Spanish flamenco song the next.

One man argues it’s time for President Bush to pull American troops from Iraq, while others joke about how one of Mr. Bush’s daughters got her purse snatched recently in Buenos Aires.

David Lujan Duarte, a tango show emcee, was a guest on the program, telling stories to the strains of a tango.

“We have to support these people,” Mr. Duarte said. Then he teased, “There are more crazy people outside this place than in here.”

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