Alfredo Olivera's hospital-based radio programs provide therapeutic support for psychiatric patients with an increased emphasis on rehabilitation. By including community members and involving patients in their own care, Alfredo has developed a method focused on treatment, rehabilitation, and recovery that makes reintegration into society much easier on patients and their families.
La idea nueva
Alfredo is changing the way mental health institutions approach patient care. Through his Radío La Colifita, or "Loony Radio," he demonstrates how and why Argentina's mental health facilities should shift from traditional methods of patient segregation and chronic incarceration to a more humane approach stressing treatment, rehabilitation and recovery. Loony Radio addresses needs related to rehabilitation, and eventual reintegration to society. By producing radio programs, patients enjoy a unique kind of therapy. Their voices are broadcast to the general public, challenging stereotypes of the mentally ill. The program offers opportunities for meaningful work for newly released patients and helps current patients maintain contact with their life under treatment, allowing for continued therapy beyond hospital grounds.
Alfredo's program at Buenos Aires's Borda Hospital, the largest hospital in Argentina, continues to grow. His idea has spread throughout the country and is now being replicated in other countries. As Alfredo develops ways for his program to become a standard feature of psychiatric rehabilitation, he is also exploring its application to other institutions suffering the same contradiction between segregation and social integration, including prisons, geriatric wards, and children's homes.
There are two opposing views of the role of mental health hospitals in Argentina. The traditional view that has dominated the field is that hospitals exist to segregate mental health patients from society, and thus keep society safe. A newer, more enlightened idea is that the hospitals exist for the treatment, recovery, and rehabilitation of citizens that need their help. The reality in Argentina today is that segregation plagues large bureaucratic institutions that are underfunded and poorly staffed. The challenge, in such a restrictive environment, is to make the transition from confinement to rehabilitation, which requires new ideas, new programs, and more individualized, humane care.
Although there are a few programs of outpatient treatment for those with mental problems, the most common response in Argentina to mental illness is still to segregate patients in mental institutions. A dramatic consequence is that once people are institutionalized, whatever problems they may have had are compounded by the living conditions. Isolation, loss of individuality, stigma from society, cramped living with others–many of whom face the same problem, some with serious conditions that affect those around them–conspire to slow the rehabilitation process.
Argentina's psychiatric hospitals are already oversaturated. Behind the walls of the two largest hospitals, the number of patients crammed together exceeds World Health Organization recommendations by a factor of three. Because of a deep inefficiency in administration and scarcity of resources, around half of all patients receive only pharmacological medicines but no much-needed psychotherapy that would help them into rehabilitation.
The patients typically come from poor homes and often do not have a place to go after being discharged. Committed by relatives, they may not even be welcome back. In this context hospitalization becomes chronic. In Borda, for example, half of the patients have been residents for more than 10 years.
To pull down the barriers of psychiatric patients' isolation and abandonment, Alfredo created Loony Radio, which has proved to be a powerful tool for rehabilitation. He uses the radio not only as a direct therapeutic tool for psychiatric patients, but also as a springboard for other ways of reintegrating them into society. Alfredo sends patients into the community and engages the community in the radio initiative.
At the core of the program are radio workshops in which Alfredo and his team use different techniques so that every patient can take part in the program. Participants may comment on patients' rights, discuss the news, read poetry, conduct interviews, criticize social issues, or sing. By telling pieces of their own history to others, and listening to themselves, patients begin to regain their values and interests, reconnecting with the qualities they need to live outside the hospital.
Loony Radio is broadcast weekly from the hospital throughout the south district of Buenos Aires. Participation is open to the patients, students, listeners, or occasional visitors. The group is composed of 30 to 35 patients who rotate turns and 10 to 15 visitors. Initially, Loony Radio did not have its own equipment so Alfredo designed a creative way to reach a broad audience: record, edit, and send the programs to other stations for broadcasting. Today this system is still in use, and clips are broadcast on 30 Argentine radio stations. Every Sunday, Alfredo edits what has been produced, choosing fragments in which the patients' histories emerge. These then elicit responses from the listeners that are recorded and sent back. Alfredo then uses this material, in which the patients can hear themselves and the responses, as a therapeutic technique. Some patients even use this resource as a way to send messages to relatives with whom they have lost contact.
Alfredo helps rehabilitate and reintegrate patients further by encouraging them to go beyond the hospital walls. Some work at a community radio and lead their own programs while others become "Loony Journalists," covering weekly stories for a prestigious radio program and broadcasting live. Through an agreement that Alfredo forged with the Press Workers Union, some former patients receive free education. In Loony Media Group–the radio's print initiative–patients produce articles that are included in general-interest newspapers. Patients are also employed at the Entrepreneur's Workshop, which produces CDs with summaries of the programs.
As he works to reintegrate patients into society, Alfredo engages community members in the process. Previous skeptics are now active participants. People can be involved answering patients' requests, making donations, or helping organize annual festivals. One listener provided space on a Miami radio program and another in Antarctica to broadcast Loony Radio. To repay the community, in 1998, Solidarity Loony was created. Through the radio, patients invite participation in solidarity campaigns to benefit underprivileged sectors and personally distribute what they have collected.
Loony Radio's strongest partners are journalists who create special sections in their programs for broadcasting and organizing listeners' clubs that launch solidarity campaigns to benefit Borda. In addition, they encourage the listener participation in mental health projects. It is difficult to quantify how many listeners Loony Radio has, because all 30 radio stations that broadcast the program are of diverse scope; some are communitarian, others commercial. Rock and Pop and AM del Plata, which broadcast Loony Radio programming, each has over one million listeners. Programming is also available to listeners in Uruguay, Chile, Bolivia, and El Salvador.
Following Loony Radio's experience, other radio programs produced by psychiatric patients have emerged in several provinces in Argentina–to date, in 20 hospitals–and in Chile, Uruguay, Spain, Germany, and France. Alfredo mentored most of them, while others emerged as the result of the international media coverage Loony Radio has received. The model has spread beyond psychiatric hospitals to two prisons, one childcare center, and three geriatric institutions. Alfredo's goals include developing a systematized course so that others can apply the model. He also wants to organize the first world meeting to address and learn from these experiences.
In 1997 Alfredo founded the Mental Health and Communication Civil Association. Assisted by a 10-person professional team, he designs and develops Loony Radio's wide array of programs. The organization has been successful in raising funds from national and international institutions, but now Alfredo wants to create a more solid fiscal base by securing greater support from the private sector. His model was exhibited in national and international specialized congresses. Students on many different career tracks (including psychology, journalism, social work, and communication) study Loony Radio as part of their academic research.
Alfredo´s two great passions, social change and radio, can be traced to his childhood. His father, an activist and political journalist, instilled in Alfredo the desire to commit to making a better world. As a child, using his dad's tape recorder, he pretended he was a radio announcer. His affinity for the mentally ill has its roots early in his life when he made friends with an older woman (called "The Crazy" by people in the neighborhood) who lived in the train station and invoked fear in all his friends.
When Alfredo was still in high school, democracy arrived in Argentina. Alfredo took part in this development by founding the first Students Center and representing his school in the High School Federation. He backpacked through Argentina and across Latin America, relishing the opportunity to open up to other cultures and find his own identity. He listened to people for hours, recording the stories they told him. While on Algodao's Island, he sat in on a community meeting where a man purported to communicate with aliens through silent gestures. Watching the community patiently pause its meeting every time the man began gesturing, Alfredo experienced for the first time the real inclusion of someone who is different. The experience stuck with him.
At the age of 19, he started working as an adult education teacher in underprivileged neighborhoods of Buenos Aires Province. Going far beyond his teacher's role, Alfredo helped the neighbors organize the building of a school. This effort required breaking prejudices and integrating a community that included Paraguayan immigrants.
After this experience, he decided to study psychology and simultaneously began working as a volunteer at the Borda Hospital. He longed, however, to make more of a difference in the lives of the patients. In realizing that the worst barriers patients faced were marginalization and abandonment, Alfredo began to think about ways to integrate them into society. One day while traveling by bus to the hospital, he met a person who worked for a community radio station. The individual invited Alfredo to answer questions from the audience about the psychiatric patients in the hospital. Alfredo thought it would be better to record patients themselves answering the questions and replay them during the program. The "madmen" element of the program generated an immediate response from listeners, many of whom phoned the station to talk to the patients. This is how Loony Radio was born.
Over the years, Alfredo has attracted national surprise and international recognition. Films Du Village of France made a documentary that became a tremendous success at the last Biarritz's festival, showing four times to satisfy high audience demand. Alfredo has received several awards, including the Martin Fierro (the most prestigious for national mass media), Educarte, ISALUD Foundation Mass Media Award, Faro de Oro 2000 Award, and an award from the Peace and Justice Service Foundation.