The Man Who Closed the Asylums
By John Foot
Franco Basaglia arrived at the grim Gorizia asylum in 1961 armed with nothing more than a set of beliefs about the treatment and welfare of the mentally sick who, incarcerated interminably, were sidelined by Italian society.
The Man Who Closed the Asylums by John Foot is about what happened in the next decade after the pioneering and charming Basaglia and a team of cohorts revolutionised the institutionalisation and care of Italy’s most vulnerable, hitherto condemned to one of Dante’s circles of hell.
Basaglia compared Gorizia to a concentration camp, a by-product of an asylum system which was morally bankrupt, where the behaviour of patients was exacerbated and not understood or ameliorated by institutional care, and he slowly but deliberately to overturn both Gorizia and the asylum network in Italy.
He achieved this by connecting with so called anti-psychiatry movements throughout Europe, a term first coined in 1967, where institutional power was contested, and though Basaglia, like R.D. Laing, rejected the label ‘anti-psychiatry’, he had empathy for its ideals, though with or without the movement, his first hand experience taught him that people are mentally ill above all because they have been excluded.
With his fellow Gorizians – ten doctors – because collective thinking and a working ensemble was essential to Basaglia, he proceeded to humanise asylums by giving patients back their dignity, after having been, as paraphrased by Laing, invalidated as human beings.
Basaglia, Foot argues, was the catalyst for the introduction of the 180 Law a decade later, which set down the following principles (a) asylums were on their way out (b) no new psychiatric hospitals would be built and (b) patients were acknowledged as fully paid up members of society.
As Foot notes, “it surprised nobody that the closing down of the asylum system was much easier said than done,” and critics felt the mentally ill would be abandoned, but The Man Who Closed the Asylums is an important record of how one man, in the beginning, refused to accept a state of affairs in a notoriously conservative country. Compelling.