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The Voice of Madness Live on Air

When discussing the relationship between society and madness, whether from a professional or lay perspective, one question remains unanswered − what, in fact, is madness? There is no consensus or even “evidence” that it exists in the first place − many experts state that madness as such doesn't exist, but is rather a transformative psychic episode in the realization of the self. A a number of terms are used to describe it: madness, schizophrenia, mental illnesses, mental disorders, etc., and these are all “textbook” terms. But what about the true experience of madness? From individual discussions and autobiographical accounts of people who experienced psychic instability, it is possible to notice a pattern showing us that their experiences, and what led to them, are confined within universal diagnostic categories, pharmacotherapy, and basic survival.

In response to this situation, in a practically demolished clinic in Buenos Aires twenty years ago a unique initiative was born − releasing the voice of madness live on air. Based on the idea of the psychiatrist Alfredo Olivera, a space for the radio program within the clinic La Borda was created. He believed that such a form of communication would be useful for individuals struggling with personal disintegration, since one of the key stereotypes they were faced with was that of being labelled as individuals excluded from society. The radio shows took place in the park of the psychiatric clinic, thereby deconstructing the history of the building itself: first it was a military camp, then a prison, and finally a psychiatric institution involved in trafficking the inmates’ organs. The radio program was a way to explode the stereotypes marking schizophrenia, madness, and other related labels as something that needed to be excluded from society. The conclusion was obvious: everyone longs for communication and contact, and both should be achieved without prejudice and with understanding. The radio was named La Colifata, and those involved in the project were the colifatos (a loose translation would be: "someone who is crazy but is not ashamed of it”). The example of La Colifata encouraged the formation of other radio programs with similar agendas − Radio Leon Dit in Toulouse, Radio 180 in Trieste (a kind of legacy of Franco Basaglia, an Italian mental health reformer and anti-psychiatrist who opened the door of psychiatric clinics to the public) and Radio Nikosia in Barcelona. All three radio programs mentioned above broadcast from outside the clinic walls, working "within" society, while Radio la Colifata is located within the clinic. What connects them all is the fact that all program editors and participants have some kind of psychiatric diagnosis. What follows is a more detailed account of one of these radio programs − Radio Nikosia from Barcelona.
The radio provides an open and authentic communication channel with the aim of eliminating social prejudice and providing the transfer of experience. This is achieved through a particular form of social pedagogy which communicates individual participants’ perceptions of madness. They are often exactly the opposite to the conventional understanding of madness, as well as the categorization of individuals through psychiatric diagnoses.
The radio program and the particular people involved in it make it possible to speak (and be understood) beyond the framework of formal diagnosis, where an individual can say: “I am not a diagnosis!” The radio shows aim to shatter what (ignorant) society considers normal or mad. These experiences have no prefix of mad or normal; instead, they are made of flesh and blood and represent existential voices breaking through to our glass-like, programmed minds. These are experiences of ourselves; myself who am writing this, you who are reading. Of the human.

Interview with Radio Nikosia, Barcelona
Q: Adi Hasanbašić
A: Martin Correa Urquiza, Joan Garcia and Txell Torres

Would you please introduce Radio Nikosia and its objectives?
Radio Nikosia is a radio program broadcast weekly on an independent radio station in Barcelona, and is entirely produced and directed by a group of 60 people, 50 of whom have a diagnosed of mental illness and 10 whom are still without a diagnosis. The radio was founded by a group of six people: Alberto, Nacho, Rosa, Victor, Xavier, and Dolores − who all have mental health problems − and two anthropologists. Its intent is to create a new social dynamic, one of active participation and social integration outside the narrow confines of existing mental health care services and patient-therapist relations, by pursuing two objectives: deconstructing the social stigma surrounding mental illness, and developing spaces of normality in which persons with a diagnosis of mental illness can become and represent themselves through the media as active social subjects rather than passive objects of psychiatric intervention. This de-pathologizing of identity is in no sense a denial of the reality of mental illness and the suffering it causes, but a rejection of the social phenomenon analyzed here as “total illness” in which the diagnosis of mental illness overwhelms and trumps any and all other aspects of personhood, identity and experience.

This is a group composed mostly of people who suffer the burden of mental health diagnosis, and it meets the purpose of breaking down (or at least trying to break down) the invisible walls that remain in the social imaginary in relation to mental suffering. Every week we decided to deconstruct on air the concepts accepted as natural by society and to question certain dogmas installed socially in relation to the world of madness. This is our effort to customize the perception of madness existing in our community. We are trying to experience a lateral gaze on madness and find alternative routes in the field of mental health. In addition, our function may be perceived as one of social pedagogy in the sense that we try to inform the community about mental health issues from our everyday perspective. These efforts, taken over a period of over seven years, eventually led to the creation of the socio-cultural Association Radio Nikosia.

What is the general concept behind your radio programs, how often does your program air and what is the content?

We have one radio program a week and different forms of participation in other commercial radio programs. We talk about everything and sometimes about mental health. Each program has a main subject: for example “Sadness”, “Smiles”, “Rain”, “Shadows”, “War”, etc. We also have literature, music, poetry and mail segments in the program. Each Nikosian covers one segment. Almost 25 people are involved in each radio show: Raul, Almudena, Dolors, Xavi, Alberto, Silvia, Marcio, Karol, Santi, Santi 2, Jose Luis, Oscar, Enric, Txell, Joan, Juan, etc.
Each program also has a guest. Sometimes the guests are people from culture, like artists, musicians, writers... Manu Chao is a good friend of the radio. He came on as a guest several times. Guests also come from the field of mental health, professionals, for example, psychiatrists. Their appearances are always very interesting because the power roles are inverted. The Nikosianos are the owners of the place, the radio, and the psychiatrist is a guest without the white uniform, he is just the subject of the interview. And what they talk about is also very interesting... totally different from the things talked about in a clinical situation...

Do you think the radio show is therapeutic, and why is that so?

We always say this is not a therapeutic radio, it's just radio. It has therapeutic implications, but only in the second instance. If we thought of it as therapeutic, we would be placing the Nikosianos back in the position of patients and undiagnosed people in the position of professionals. Nikosia is a team of people with different kinds of knowledge, some of anthropology, some of communication, and others with the inner experience of madness. All in all, this is a program that generally has welfare implications for all, but there is no need to transform the whole social experience in a therapeutic analysis. If we did that, we would be removing much of its political dimension.

In your opinion, could you make a connection between your program and the anti-psychiatric movement?

Yes and no. The base is in anti-psychiatry. But then again, anti-psychiatry was invented by psychiatrists − for some excellent psychiatrists. What we are talking about is the possibility for people who are diagnosed to have the opportunity to contribute, to be recognized as an essential part of the construction of treatment. The central idea is to search for compliance with others. Many Nikosianos take their medication, but at the same time they call for the possibility of dialogue and meeting with the other (side) when constructing their therapy plan. They do not want to be passive recipients of prescriptions that work for others, but to construct their own lives and their sense of life.

What is your opinion regarding psychiatric institutions, psychiatrists and their methods and treatments?

The problem is in psychiatric methods and power relations. A person with mental health issues remains a person only to be objectified, regarded as an error in its entirety. This is how we view the situation: here’s a person who is suffering, but that does not change the fact that he/she is still a person who knows a lot about him/herself. Nikosia arises from the need to work in partnership with different experts and their knowledge, including knowledge that is necessarily profane, the knowledge derived from experience. So we definitely do welcome psychiatrists and other professionals to discuss the issue with us and bring both sides closer to a meeting point, not a confrontation. This is not an anti-psychiatry practice, although it has many elements of it; our work is simply aimed at constructing a new way to interact socially with madness, and to create spaces in which the diagnosed person can speak his or her truth. Psychiatric institutions are the most humiliating and anti-therapeutic places. Practically 99% of Nikosianos consider their experiences in psychiatric facilities as humiliating as prison and destructive for their morals and thought. The network of mental health assistance is also sometimes patronizing and needs continual review.

Do you know how many people tune in to listen to your live program, and who they are?

We have no information on the number of radio listeners, but there are a lot of people listening over the internet, on the website www.radionikosia.org.
How do people of Catalonia and Barcelona respond to Radio Nikosia? Do you have any problems within your community?
The main problem is the stigma. Still, a lot of people respond to the radio show. People come on the show because it is open to everyone. The first thing most of them say is that we do not seem mentally ill and that tells a lot about the socially constructed image of madness and its discordance with reality. Our intention is to deal with madness in the community, in the city, and to create opportunities for ongoing interaction within the same city, in standardized space, where everything is mixed and where there are no distinctions between people with and without diagnosis.


What is your relation with Radio La Colifata from Buenos Aires and are you in contact with any other radio stations in Europe?

(Martin) I worked there for almost 2 years. We feel that Radio Nikosia and Colifata are sister projects. Colifata was an incredibly important experience. We are in contact with Radio León Dit in France and Radio 180 in Trieste, Italy.

Do you receive any help from the government, or a psychiatric hospital, or any other institution?

We work outside the medical and clinical structures so we have not received any such help for a long time. As of recently, we have been receiving small amounts of financial support from the government − the Ministry for Social Action.

Do you have any advice for younger generations interested in the world of mental health, regardless whether it is as “professionals” or as part of the general population?

We would advise future professionals not to bury themselves in books, because, although they promise to deliver the map and anatomy of the human soul, they out to be nothing more than a probably intended partial dissection. It’s impossible to study the human being as an inanimate object, at least while it’s still alive. The only thing we can do is understand people, and for that a means of communication must exist. And even if communication is not possible, if the suffering is too deep and disables the flow of communication, they should insist on mechanisms which improve communication rather than obstruct it. This way, it is possible to access the “shelves” of memory and to discover its “profane” knowhow, to acknowledge a subject as unique, and consequently as differential, special and valuable. If you don’t believe us, you are welcome to learn more first-hand by tuning in every Wednesday from 16:00 to 18:00 p.m. on 91.4 FM, or by visiting the website www.radionikosia.org. Many people have already taken the chance and we always tried and usually succeeded in surprising them. Ultimately, there’s something that connects all of us. It is as Caetano Veloso’s song says: “when closer, everybody is mad”.

— Intro translated from Croatian by Ivana Jelača



Radio Nikosia. Martin Correa Urquiza is a doctor of clinical anthropology from Barcelona and a coordinator at Radio Nikosia. Joan Garcia is a Nikosiana and the treasurer at Radio Nikosia. Txell Torres is a Nikosiana.
www.radionikosia.org