Talk Radio Therapy

How patients at a psychiatric hospital in Buenos Aires found healing by starting a radio program.

by Federico Bianchini; photos by Anita Bugni; translated by Yeiry Guevara
Dec 21 2018, 4:30pm

Residents and collaborators of Radio La Colifata in action at El Borda, a psychiatric hospital in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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In 1991, Alfredo Olivera, then a 24-year-old psychology student, spent his weekends volunteering at the Hospital Interdisciplinario Psicoasistencial José Tiburcio Borda, a psychiatric hospital in Buenos Aires, Argentina, better known as El Borda. During his visits, Olivera was struck by how the patients who lived there not only suffered psychologically but also, in most cases, had lost contact with the outside world. When he mentioned this to a friend who happened to host a radio program, the friend offered to bring him on-air to speak about his experiences with the people he called “the lunatics.” Olivera made a counteroffer: Why not let the residents do the talking?

That very week, Olivera went to the hospital with a tiny recorder. Placing it on the table, Olivera asked the all-male group of residents to talk about their madness. “My madness?” said the first one. “Why not talk about women? That’s a way more interesting topic!”

“A house without a woman is a ship without a captain,” said another.

“God struck man so hard and pulled out his rib,” a third person chimed in, as another resident laughed and said, “Give him his rib back!”

Fernando Aquino, a former patient of the hospital, is one of the show’s hosts.

The conversation aired on the friend’s radio program. When Olivera returned to the hospital a week later, he brought a new topic to debate for the radio as well as messages, comments, and questions from listeners who had tuned in from their homes or offices with a mixture of fear and curiosity.

That was the beginning of what would later become Radio La Colifata, the first radio show in the world to broadcast from inside a psychiatric hospital. The project revolutionized the way professionals and the general public thought about their relationships and connections with mental hospitals, and eventually inspired similar projects in institutions in Germany, Sweden, Spain, France, Italy, Mexico, Uruguay, Chile, and other places.

El Borda is an enormous property located in a bleak zone in the southern part of Buenos Aires, covering almost 50 acres. Founded in 1863, it started as a research center for neurobiology, psychopathology, and psychiatry. Today, it serves about 500 male residents and provides outpatient care to approximately 5,000 patients per month, although when walking through its corridors, one might think the place is abandoned. Inside on a small patio, La Colifata records.

Every Saturday at 1:30 PM, two psychologists and two journalism students set up the chairs and prepare recording equipment, the console, and microphones. They await the arrival of the residents, about 40 hospital patients who’ll participate in the broadcast. Neighbors who listen to the program also attend, along with psychology and nursing students and their professors.

A patient at El Borda watches television.

“On-air, the patient is able to take the floor and therapists join in, creating an improvised clinic,” Olivera told me. “We work in the field of the subjective but, at the same time, a space of socialization is created. This project creates a ‘loop’ that invites listeners outside the hospital institution to reflect, provoking questions.”

Olivera, who is now working on developing a radio project with the residents of a psychiatric institution in France, says that he began to see the therapeutic effect of La Colifata when the interaction between listeners and patients not only generated a decrease of prejudice and stigma about mental health but—thanks to the public’s reaction—many of the patients began to improve their clinical state.

The show originally took the name La columna de los internos de del Borda, or "Residents’ Column,” and it was broadcast weekly on Argentinean public radio. One day, a patient asked, “If it were our radio program, what would we name it?” They began to discuss names but couldn’t reach an agreement. Olivera, then the show’s producer, proposed that one of the patients take an informal survey through the hospital corridors and ask patients, medics, nurses, and visitors what the name of the program should be.

After they collected names, there were too many options to pick just one. “What if the listeners chose it?” suggested one participant. It was decided that the listeners would vote on it. All 40 of the suggestions were listed on-air: Radio Capitan Piluso, Radio Spika, Radio del Plata, Westinghouse, and many more. Among the names, the winner was the only one that referenced insanity. In slang popularized by the Argentinean working class during the second half of the 19th century, colifato was a tender way of labeling a person with mental illness.

El Borda serves about 500 male residents and provides outpatient care to approximately 5,000 patients per month.

“What do we do? Do we just accept it?” they discussed among themselves. The listeners, conventionally “sane” people, voted that the radio program produced by residents of the mental hospital trying to eradicate the stigma of “madness,” should be named something that reinforces it. Ultimately, a decision was made: Taking ownership of the name that came from outside the psychiatric hospital’s walls was treated as an opportunity to reflect upon, deconstruct, and ultimately break the associated stigma.

When 25-year-old Fernando Aquino was checked in to El Borda in 1996, he thought he’d never be allowed to leave. He was terrified. Neither doctors nor nurses offered any explanation for his hospitalization. Aquino was diagnosed with schizophrenia. His father’s words were seared in his memory: “That place is a warehouse for people.” Aquino remembers his early days vividly. After he was injected with haloperidol—an antipsychotic drug that decreases excitement in the brain and is frequently used to treat psychosis, schizophrenia, and Tourette’s syndrome—he says he dragged himself against a wall, feeling trapped in his own body, without any control over the movement of his arms and legs, unable to react to that internal tension. The doctors told him that it took time to adjust to the medication’s side effects and that his body would slowly grow accustomed to it. But he says he saw plenty of people who’d been on the same drug for 15 or 20 years with the same glazed-over eyes.

One year after being admitted, Aquino returned home. The medication had eradicated more than the symptoms it was supposed to target. “Before I’d go to buy cigarettes, I rehearsed how to ask the shopkeeper [for a pack],” he told me. “My symptoms were gone but a large part of my consciousness had left too.”

Five years later, Aquino checked in to the hospital again. This time, he started to attend workshops on poetry, miming, puppetry, and theater. These workshops allowed him to reconnect with experiences erased by the medication. Little by little, he regained his sense of self and was able to connect with people. “When insanity sets in, you are left without friends,” he says. “Everyone walks away from you.” Every Saturday, he would go to the hospital’s patio to watch the taping of La Colifata. He began to listen to the other residents talk. Over time, he developed the courage to present a broadcast himself.

Painted murals adorn the walls of the garden at the hospital.

Today, Aquino works in loading cargo. He only visits the hospital on Saturdays for the radio program. He also participates in a training workshop in the La Colifata studio in the north-central neighborhood of Villa Ortúzar and performs in a local theater. “I manage my insanity this way,” he said. “I don’t hide it because I know I have it under control.”

Perhaps the best way to understand the dynamic of La Colifata is through the story of a patient named Mr. V. In the early days of the broadcast, Mr. V’s shouting outbursts would interrupt nearly every recording. With vehemence, he’d yell, “Private life for the ten apostles!” at random intervals. Everyone could hear him, and the hosts were unsure whether they should keep talking or stay quiet to give him the floor as he continued to shout the same line over and over. Some of the residents suggested kicking him out of the space. Other wanted him to explain what happened with the apostles.


The radio program eventually turned into a space of debate: what to do with Mr. V? After much discussion, he was dubbed Interrumpidor oficial de Radio La Colifata—“The Official Interrupter of Radio La Colifata”—and became the only team member who was allowed to interject at any point during the conversation. His interruptions were brief and punctual, and most team members accepted his unpredictability. Others were more reluctant, but they always regarded him with the utmost respect.

“The most important thing is not to anchor the patient’s frenzy,” Olivera explained. It’s a question of understanding that each person shines in the best way they can through their personal form of self-expression. The aim of La Colifata is to create conditions to contextualize this particular way of being, a space that allows residents to narrate their perception of the world. It makes true communication and connection possible.

Mr. V always interrupted with consent from others. The hosts would allow a few seconds for his message, then continue with the program. After having garnered that acceptance, he was offered his own program. In order to host, he had to give up his role as Official Interrupter. In taking on his own program, he’s had to wait his turn.

“We don’t correct or force whoever got lost in the universe of words to return to the fold,” Olivera explains. “On the contrary, we provide the water to a dry riverbed so that it can return to being a river.”

One overcast Saturday, plastic chairs were arranged in a semicircle on El Borda’s patio for a recording of La Colifata. Two microphones were passed by hand as residents conducted a segment called “Interviews with Visitors.” A resident dressed in jeans and a floral-print shirt grabbed the microphone and approached two of the nearest audience members in a group of more than 50 nursing students, who had just arrived.

One of the audience members, a loquacious dark-haired and muscular woman, introduced herself as Valeria. She was a student at the University of Merlo and wanted to major in mental health. “What do you think is the difference between people outside of the hospital and those who are residents?” the host asked.

“None. There’s no difference,” she answered.

“Well, then,” one of the psychologists who coordinates the show interjected, “Why are they so far away?” He gestured to the imaginary line that divided the semicircle between the residents and the crowd of spectators—about 20 feet separated them.

“Come! Crazy isn’t contagious!” a resident cried, laughing loudly. It was as if calling out the distance revealed a stark unconscious prejudice. Almost immediately, everyone moved their chairs closer to close the gap.

Due to a translation error, an earlier version of this article misspelled Fernando Aquino's last name.

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