Italian Trauma

A recent BBC news report on Italy noted that, although the nation now appears to be slowly emerging from its self-imposed pandemic cocoon, its citizens may have an even tougher task ahead of them–namely, dealing with the psychological after-effects induced by the Coronavirus. Think about it: What makes Italy such a prime destination other than its history and its cuisine? Ask any tourist and they will say, “The people.” Just as Italians seem to have that extra edge when it comes to creativity–be it with a paintbrush or a spatula–they also exude a personal warmth that is both disarming and ennobling

In short, they are a deeply humanistic people, reflected within the simplest of gestures–a smile, a hug, a laugh, a pun, a direct statement, a pat on the back, a peck on the cheek, or an arm either around the shoulder or within a locked one. As the old joke goes, “Psychiatrists go broke in Italy.” The humanism in all of us seems to be turned up a notch in the Italians, both physically and mentally: their Mediterranean diet gives them long, healthy lives (which the Coronavirus cruelly took advantage of), and their lack of embarrassment about expressing emotions keeps them sane.

Until now.

The BBC clip interviewed an Italian psychiatrist who noted that Italy doesn’t have the same number of mental-health care professionals as other nations, a fact backed up by data from European sources. But, then, did they need them in such huge numbers? Even after the devastation of WWII, the Italians recovered quickly (“the economic miracle”). And, in 1978, psychiatrist Franco Bersaglia led reforms which not only outlawed mental institutions, but provided a kinder and gentler approach to how the mentally ill were treated. People suffering from depression to more severe illnesses were moved to community or faith-based centers or to local hospitals, surrounding them with the familiar comforts of Italic culture (food, friends, and family).

What the BBC clip focused on, however, was the psychological trauma which millions of average Italian citizens may soon have to deal with via the Coronavirus. In addition to deaths, the pandemic has ripped a huge tear into the social and emotional fabric which holds Italians (literally) together. Instead of closeness, there is now distance. Instead of family get-togethers, there is self-isolation. Instead of a relaxed appreciation of life, there is palpable anxiety and fear.

As one woman in the clip, a phone volunteer, says, “This is psychological trauma. Not just for Italy but for Europe.”

Other news outlets have shown the Italians reacting against this via clips of them singing on balconies or toasting each with wine glasses from afar. But these happy moments are also bittersweet, a reminder of what the Italians have lost.

If there is a positive in any of this, it’s that dealing with such trying circumstances wouldn’t be coming out of a vacuum. In classical Rome, Caelius Aurelianus translated a text titled, On Acute and Chronic Disease, detailing illnesses like melancholia. The Romans themselves didn’t fear mental stress; they treated such conditions with herbs, wine, and their famous outdoor baths. And, irony of ironies, it was an Italian physician, Girolamo Fracastoro, who, in 1546, discovered that epidemics were caused by pathogens which were transferred from parts of the body, from human to human. People still got sick, but they no longer blamed their illnesses on supernatural powers. They now had knowledge to fight them.

In turn-of-the-century Italy, psychiatrist Marco Levi Bianchini was the first to translate Sigmond Freud. In 1935, Ugo Celetti invented ECT (Electroconvulsive therapy), used on patients whose melancholia or schizophrenia didn’t respond to regular treatments. After WWII, psychiatrist Renzo Canestrari pushed to have psychology made an essential component of all medical education. And in 1971, Mara Silvini Palazzoli and her fellow doctors created the Milan System, an innovative approach to family therapy. These are just a few of the luminaries who helped Italians deal with despair.

In America, of course, we had our own “doctor”: Felice Leonardo Buscaglia, aka “Dr. Love.” A college psychology professor in California, Buscaglia was so despondent over the suicide of one of his students that he shifted his studies to a very simple subject: love. His lectures on what it means to be human–how we really are our brother’s keeper–hit a nerve in a 1980s America still drunk on materialism and greed. He soon became a popular lecturer and, when his speeches were turned into PBS specials, Dr. Love became a household name. The secret of his success wasn’t lost on Italian Americans: Buscaglia demystified Italian habits of hugging and expressing emotion to a Puritan America starved for them. And Buscaglia practiced what he preached; his booming voice and semaphore arms–waving into the stratosphere—inspired Americans of all backgrounds to stop being ashamed of being vulnerable; that is, human.

With such a history, Italians everywhere may already have a heads up on whatever post-traumatic stress may follow.

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