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Sbatti il matto in prima pagina. I giornali italiani e la questione psichiatrica prima della legge Basaglia

Pier Maria Furlan

Roma, Donzelli, 433 pp., € 32.00 2016

A book based upon an extraordinary work of research and documentation, Sbatti il matto in prima pagina details the way the Italian press dealt with issues relating to psychiatry and asylums in a period from the late 1960s to the so-called «Basaglia Law» of 1978. Furlan shows how print media and journalists became interested in the changes going on in the system at the time thanks to the work of Franco Basaglia and others, but also details the ways that journalists uncovered and investigated the conditions experienced by mental health patients at the time. Looking at more than 1200 articles, Furlan argues that «attraverso i giornali possiamo non solo ritrovare l’analisi e la saggistica di rottura, di trasformazione e anche di invito alla cautela, ma altresì cogliere la complessità della resistenze, delle opposizione, dagli interessi che permettevano di ignorare o giustificare condizioni di degrado e di violenza non paragonabili a nessun’altra istituzione, carceri comprese» (p. VIII). There are some absolutely fascinating sections here on various scandals and news stories linked to the period of reform and change in the psychiatric hospital and mental health system in that period. For example, Furlan dedicates a sizeable section to the case of the psychiatrist Giorgio Coda, the so-called «elettricista di Collegno», who was accused of torturing patients under his care and was put on trial in 1974. La Stampa wrote at the time that «le testimonianze dei pazienti, in proposito, sono agghiaccianti» (p. 239). At the trial the lawyer Bianca Guidetti Serra was quoted as saying «in questo processo non ci potranno essere né vinti, né vincitori, perché non si può ripagare la sofferenza» (p. 241). Coda was found guilty and given a five year prison sentence. But he escaped prison on a technicality. In 1977, Coda was attacked by four armed young people (calling themselves the Prima linea). He survived. Many journalists became specialists in covering these areas, and some were strong supporters of the Basaglia movement. But there was also a fair amount of hostility, especially around «incidents» that occurred during the closure of the asylums. The book ends with the 180 law of 1978. A national debate accompanied this measure, with positions for and against the reform. And this division continues to this day. It was clear that the law alone was not enough. Years of work would be needed to «close» the asylum system. This book provides both a lucid analysis of mental illness and the various developments that affected the system in Italy. But it also contains extremely rich source material both in terms of direct quotes and also references to other articles. As such, it is a rarity being both useful to further study and fascinating in its own right, for those who work on Italian history, psychiatry but also for those attentive to the way the press and journalism works and has worked in Italy.


John Foot