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Echoes of a Dictatorship

The police state of the Argentinean dictatorship may be no longer, but fragments of its authoritarian bureaucracy remain. For patients of the some of the country's more notorious public mental institutions, life is still about isolation and separation of those who cannot conform to the greater mainstream society.

Over 25,000 people have been detained in mental institutions like the “Borda” in Argentina, in violation of the principles of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. A person can be admitted or incarcerated without a hearing or trial for offenses as small as disturbing the peace.

Chronic alcoholism and suicidal thoughts are common reasons for admitting patients who are arrested by the police or brought in by family members. Upon admission patients are often sedated and interviewed in that state, cheating the individual out of his best ability to understand and answer coherently. Their belongings are taken and they are not allowed to see their families. More than 80% of these people are locked away for at least a year and many for life.

Many patients have died from abuse and negligence in Argentinean psychiatric institutions. Some reports indicate deaths from accidents in the unsupervised, isolated and aging cells. Other reported cases include patients who become victims of physical and sexual abuse. The isolation and sensory deprivation engender and contribute to patients' psychotic episodes and psychiatric disabilities.

The vast majority of the people detained must survive in dangerous, unhealthy living conditions and without the possibility of a future outside the institution. Gruesome stories abound, including a patient mysteriously burned to death in his cell and another who suffocated his cellmate with a pillow in an attempt to calm his screaming down.

The demented poor, who have neither the money nor the family for support are treated on a method based on social exclusion, and physical and chemical punishment. There are no mirrors or clocks in the buildings, robbing patients of their sense of self and of time.

Argentina is one of the countries with more psychiatrists and psychologists per capita in the world. However, people with mental disabilities are subjected to an inadequate public mental health system that segregates them, preventing them from rehabilitating and reintegrating into society.

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