The Man Who Closed the Asylums

The Man Who Closed the Asylums:Franco Basaglia and the Revolution in Mental Health Care

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When the wind of the 1960s blew through world of psychiatry

In 1961, when Franco Basaglia arrived outside the grim walls of the Gorizia asylum, on the Italian border with Yugoslavia, it was a place of horror, a Bedlam for the mentally sick and excluded, redolent of Basaglia's own wartime experience inside a fascist gaol. Patients were frequently restrained for long periods, and therapy was largely a matter of electric and insulin shocks. The corridors stank, and for many of the interned the doors were locked for life. This was a concentration camp, not a hospital.

Basaglia, the new Director, was expected to practise all the skills of oppression in which he had been schooled, but he would have none of this. The place had to be closed down by opening it up from the inside, bringing freedom and democracy to the patients, the nurses and the psychiatrists working in that 'total institution'.

Inspired by the writings of authors such as Primo Levi, R. D. Laing, Erving Goffman, Michel Foucault and Frantz Fanon, and the practices of experimental therapeutic communities in the UK, Basaglia's seminal work as a psychiatrist and campaigner in Gorizia, Parma and Trieste fed into and substantially contributed to the national and international movement of 1968. In 1978 a law was passed (the 'Basaglia law') which sanctioned the closure of the entire Italian asylum system.

The first comprehensive study of this revolutionary approach to mental health care, The Man Who Closed the Asylums is a gripping account of one of the most influential movements in twentiethcentury psychiatry, which helped to transform the way we see mental illness. Basaglia's work saved countless people from a miserable existence, and his legacy persists, as an object lesson in the struggle against the brutality and ignorance that the establishment peddles to the public as common sense.

Reviews

  • Peopled by a cast of extraordinary characters – patients, colleagues, friends and enemies – revolving around the charismatic and now legendary psychiatrist Franco Basaglia, John Foot’s sympathetic account de-mythologises the reform by uncovering little-known precedents, distancing Basaglia from anti-psychiatry and situating his work within Italian radical politics of the late 1960s. Indispensable reading for anyone interested in psychiatric reform.

    Howard Caygill, author of On Resistance
  • The anti-asylum movement in 1960s and ’70s Italy forms one of the most fascinating episodes in western psychiatry. John Foot’s richly documented and revealing study of this movement and its pioneer figure, the charismatic radical psychiatrist Franco Basaglia, adds immeasurably to our understanding of the troubled history of mental health care in modern times.

    Barbara Taylor, author of The Last Asylum
  • A brilliant historical reconstruction of the work and ideas of one of the world’s leading exponents of critical psychiatry.

    David Forgacs, author of Italy’s Margins