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From Torture to Treatment: One Man’s Fight to Revolutionise Mental Health Treatment in Italy

10 Jul, 2014

Wellcome Trust funded researcher Professor John Foot spent two years exploring the history of revolutionary psychiatrist Franco Basaglia. Basaglia’s views on the treatment of psychiatric patients changed the political landscape of Italy and the field of psychiatry. Freelance science communicator Georgia Bladon found out more…

Up until the 1960s, psychiatric patients in Italy were stigmatised as ‘ill’ and asylums were little more than prisons. Franco Basaglia was among a group of psychiatrists who revolted against the cruelty inflicted on these individuals and advocated more humane treatments to take its place.

When the young Franco Basaglia took over a single asylum in northern Italy, he was horrified by what he found. Patients were locked up, neglected, abused and restrained, leaving them terrified and powerless with very little chance of recovery or rehabilitation into society. Basaglia, so affected by what he saw, took a radical and rare step and began a campaign to have all Italian residential asylums shut down.

This audio slideshow, recorded at the start of Foot’s project, gives an overview of Franco Basaglia’s work, and his movement to radically reform the treatment of psychiatric patients in Italy.

Basaglia refused to bind patients to their beds, abolished any isolation method and started a debate that, in 1978, resulted in the national reform bill ‘Law 180’, or ‘Basaglia Law’ which provided the closure of Italy’s mental hospitals.

This was the beginning of a new outlook on mental health in Italy that condemned institutionalism as catalysing the stereotypes of madness, and called instead for treatment without confinement, where doctor and patient could communicate as equals.

After the bill had been passed the asylums of Italy shut down and the focus of psychiatric care shifted from defense of society towards better meeting of patients’ wants through community care. The aim was for the mentally ill to be cured, not secluded; for psychiatric hospitals to cease to exist; and for the mentally ill to be granted civil rights and integrated into community life.

The asylums were replaced by unstaffed apartments, supervised hostels, group homes, day centres and cooperatives managed by patients. There is still much debate around the Basaglia Law in the psychiatric community and Italy remains the only country in the world where traditional psychiatric hospitals are outside the law.

The slideshow we made with Professor Foot was recorded at the outset of his research. Since then, he has become the first scholar to gain access to the Basaglia archive, and has discovered a movement for change far wider and deeper than he imagined when he began the project.

Foot has looked at the impact of the movement across a variety of Italian cities, including Gorizia, Perugia, Reggio Emilia, Trieste, Arrezzo, Parma, Venice and Ferrara. Each instance was different, with a unique set of local rivalries, debates and political disputes.

The project has changed and grown in many ways over the course of time but the importance of photography is one of the aspects that remained. Photography, film and journalism were powerful tools for shedding light on the cruelty that was being inflicted within the asylums and for spreading the word of the revolution against it. It seems apt then some of these materials – a small fraction of the wealth of the movement’s photographic record – are used to tell this story now.

John Foot’s book will be published in Italian by Felrinelli in December 2014 and in English by Verso in 2015.

Professor John Foot was given a Medical Humanities Research Leave Award from the Wellcome Trust to help fund his research. To find out about the wide range of grant schemes available from the Trust check out the funding pages of the Wellcome Trust website.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike Vanzieleghem permalink
    21 Jul, 2014 4:46 pm

    Freedom and self-determination are beautiful things. However, it seems difficult to imagine that any very fundamental, large scale solution might move all mental health disease patients in that direction. Obviously, various forms of psychiatric and/or psychological conditions result in differing levels of individual difficulty, dysfunction or disability. I wonder if restrictions on rights and freedoms are potentially valuable in certain patients if they genuinely improve the quality of the lives of those individuals who might otherwise be exposed to a bewildering and difficult world. The key I think may be to deconstruct “institutionalization” and replace it with broadly adaptable community living schemes that are based on overarching and deep human compassion and has the capacity to truly provide individualized care for individual needs. I suppose that is the well-meaning Basaglia intent and it sounds like that is what has largely happened in Italy. However, the devil remains both in the details and the extent to which “society” is willing to embrace, even just recognize and interact with, individuals with psychiatric and psychological conditions.

  2. blog.co.uk permalink
    27 Aug, 2014 6:09 am

    Thanks for finally talking about >From Torture to Treatment:
    One Mans Fight to Revolutionise Mental Health Treatment in Italy | Wellcome Trust Blog <Loved it!

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