Despite law ordering closure, Argentine psychiatric hospitals still operating

By Javier Castro Bugarin

Buenos Aires, Apr 29 (EFE).- Almost three decades after leaving the Borda Hospital in 1992, Argentina’s best-known psychiatric hospital, Eduardo Codina’s voice still trembles when he recalls his years-long stay there. His upbeat demeanor shifts to absolute seriousness when he tells about his experiences over the 12 years he was treated there for reasons he’d prefer to forget.

“I felt very injured. I was aware of what had happened to me, so I had to make a decision: stay on the street or end up dead from too many psychotropic drugs,” Codina – who, despite his mental health issues, can live independently – said in an interview with EFE at the Parque España, just 500 meters (a third of a mile) from the spot where he went through his agonies.

Promulgated on Dec. 2, 2010, the National Mental Health Law mandated the closure of all psychiatric institutions in Argentina, including the Borda Hospital, within 10 years, but the goal is nowhere near accomplished with a total of 162 mental health centers of this kind – colloquially known as “manicomios” (insane asylums) – remaining open and 12,035 people still being treated there, according to official figures.

Codina entered Borda for the first time in the early 1980s after losing the house where he lived with his mother. He said that he was in a ward with dozens of other patients and slept on “very rickety beds” with “broken windows” that let in the “winter cold.”

“Sometimes I ended up lying on a bed, very sluggish and sleepy. I slept most of the day. They forced me to get up to be drugged … Everyone there was abandoned,” he said.

Codina’s friend Julio Rivero, who spent much less time in Borda, said that “They gave you injections and they made you a cocktail of medications that left you feeling like a zombie. For almost all of that year (I was there) I was confined to a wheelchair,” said Rivera, recalling that there were patients “from all social classes, but very badly taken care of.”

Although the health personnel have changed and the methods used are no longer the same, both men agreed that their hospitalizations did not contribute to improving their health or that of other patients. Just the opposite, in fact.

“It’s a logic that involves social segregation, the loss of social links, exclusion from the labor market, violation of human rights and being subjected to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment,” said Eduardo Quiroga, an attorney for the Civil Association for Equality and Justice (ACIJ).

The National Mental Health Law was intended to end these problems by closing the psychiatric hospitals and replacing them with community health facilities before 2020 as well as increasing spending on mental health to 10 percent of the national health budget.

But 41 of remaining 162 psychiatric hospitals are publicly funded and keep patients interned for an average of 8.2 years, according to a study done by the Health and Social Development Ministry in 2019, while the money destined for mental health facilities is less than 2 percent of the health budget.

To reverse this situation, Buenos Aires province – which has the most mental health patients of any district in the country – prohibited new admissions into long-term mental care facilities.

“Our province has to transform its care model,” provincial mental health assistant secretary Julieta Calmels told EFE, estimating that it will take three to five years to complete the “reform process” for the four province’s four public mental health hospitals.

However, she said she didn’t know when the mental health law’s requirements will be met since, to completely close down the psychiatric hospitals will require building a “health alternative” – a community-based one – “and that is much more complicated.”


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