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Everybody hurts: Russian radio airs from psychiatric hospital

August 29, 2016

A radio show broadcast live from a Moscow psychiatric hospital every Saturday kicks off with a jokey jingle — “Radio Through the Looking Glass, it’s nuts!”

This is a station with a difference: Russia’s first to transmit from a psychiatric institution whose presenters are all being treated for mental illness, mostly schizophrenia.

And it’s not just any psychiatric facility — this is Moscow’s red-brick Alexeyev hospital, infamous in Soviet times for confining dissidents diagnosed with “mental problems” under the regime’s bid to silence opponents.

It is still better known by its Soviet-era name, Kashchenko, which has entered everyday lingo as the term for “loony bin” — pejorative, maybe, but this hasn’t stopped the presenters from using it.

“Hi everyone,” quips Daniil, opening the hour-long show in a Homer Simpson T-shirt. “This is Radio Through the Looking Glass with you, as usual. And as usual, we’re broadcasting on Saturday direct from the Kashchenko.”

Named after Lewis Carroll’s fantasy tale about Alice, the station started in 2014, broadcasts online and has caught attention in a country where there is still a massive stigma around mental illness.

– ‘Gets results’ –

The presenters are outpatients, living at home, with two saying they travel 90 minutes to take part in the novel broadcast. They range in age from the 20s to the late 40s.

Relaxed, they smoke and chat ahead of the show. One named Dina shows a photograph of her latest sewing project. But when the broadcast goes live at 3:00 pm, the atmosphere changes as presenters take turns to discuss the show’s theme: the limits of sympathy and compassion.

“I don’t tell my tragic tale to all and sundry… but none of my friends whom I told about my mental condition have rejected me at all,” said presenter Mikhail Larsov.

Many prefer not to use their real names but speak articulately about their situation — with no supervision from medics.

“We ourselves, let’s be honest, don’t always understand what’s going on inside ourselves — just you try explaining it to other people!” said Daniil, who has worked for two national newspapers.

Diagnosed as a teenager, he describes feeling “like there’s an opaque wall between me and the rest of the world.” After a broadcast, he struggles to stay awake, head in hands.

State-run Mir24 television hailed the project.

“It’s unlikely, but from the first few minutes you can see that such non-standard therapy brings results: someone who looked lost before the show suddenly starts talking without hesitation, practically like a professional presenter.”

The widely-read Life News news website, meanwhile, called it “possibly the most intellectual radio station in Moscow or Russia”.

– ‘Everybody hurts’ –

During the broadcasts, editor-in-chief Darya Blagova checks the schedule on a tablet while her husband Vitaly, who handles the technical side, weaves in pre-recorded sections.

“It was a very good broadcast, dynamic,” she tells the crew in a debriefing as one suggests a song to end each program – R.E.M.’s rock ballad “Everybody Hurts”.

Blagova came to the radio via journalism training and earns a small wage from a charitable foundation that supports the station — as do the presenters.

Though she has a full-time job, “this is a lot more important than all the other things,” she admits, saying she keeps in contact with the presenters throughout the week.

Another host, Larsov, had worked at a Moscow radio station but after a hospital stay was told to leave. He has since struggled through odd jobs and unemployment.

“I came here when I felt really low. I had lost radio work and was on a lot of medication,” he says, talking openly about a suicide attempt and calling Alexeyev hospital “one of the most civilised” psychiatric facilities he has experienced.

– ‘Radio saved me’ –

“This radio saved me,” says Larsov, whose feats have included getting an interview with Russian rock star Andrei Makarevich.

“I could return to journalism, I could develop myself.”

It has also been a lifeline for another presenter, Nikolai Voronovsky. “Time that could be spent with the blues, with depression, becomes productive and enriches you,” he says.

The idea came from a radio station in Spain, says psychiatrist Arkady Shmilovich, who heads the hospital’s rehabilitation department and the radio project.

He remains hands-off, saying after 50 years as a practising psychiatrist “we decided (medical) professionals should stay out of it.”

The radio has allowed patients to develop new skills and “today in my view they are already professionals,” he says.

“They absolutely don’t just broadcast about psychiatry. It’s about love, children, holidays or homosexuality.

“Life as it is — that’s what they talk about.”

Dispatches from AFP concerning freedom of information, censorship and news coverage in regions where independent media is under threat.