Children vs. Adults

Yana Buhrer Tavanier

I have been covering institutions for people with mental disabilities and psychiatric problems in Bulgaria since 2002. And every time it’s the same thing.

If the institution is for children, most people are interested, horrified, scandalised, wanting to do something about the conditions these children are living in.

Readers react, talk about the need of de-institutionalisation, foster care, day-centres; they write letters demonstrating their outrage, and the articles attract many, sometimes hundreds of, comments.  

Which is all great, right?  

If the institution is for adults though, the reaction is quite different. Most people are not as interested, not quite so horrified, and not as scandalized.

They don’t think there is anything you can and should do, really, for these adults in institutions. Improve living conditions – sure.

But de-institutionalisation? “Society is not ready for that”, you will often hear. But not so often as “you know, they might be dangerous”…  

That's why, usually, journalists prefer to cover institutions for children.

And for the same reason, for this programme, I chose to cover institutions for adults.  

Because society needs reminding that, generally speaking, these are the same people we are talking about. Children with mental disabilities in institutions, if they are lucky enough to turn 18, are moved to adult institutions.  

And the human rights abuses are the same. Or worse.  

And everyone keeps forgetting that a great deal of people with mental health problems or other psychiatric problems do live outside institutions.

Thus, in this aspect, society ‘is ready’ for de-institutionalisation. The thing that is not ready is a network of alternative care-centres.  

So, I have finished my reporting in Bulgaria, Romania and Serbia. I have visited 10 institutions in total. And as this is an investigation into human rights violations in these facilities, I will spare the details, until the story is actually published.

But what I can say is this: It was worse, much worse, than I expected. And no, I don't have a ‘winner’. The three countries I covered have failed equally to provide adequate care for people with mental disabilities or psychiatric problems; more than that – in the institutions I have visited, people were victims of inhuman and degrading treatment. And amongst these countries are two EU-members.  

Last week I saw on the web a great t-shirt, with the ironic print “Stereotypes, a real time-saver”. In the case of people with mental disabilities or mental health problems, society has saved decades, hasn’t it?

Fellow Bio


Yana Buhrer Tavanier

Yana Buhrer Tavanier is a freelance journalist and a human rights activist based in Sofia, Bulgaria. Previously she was editor of weekly Capital, and worked as a journalist for Tema magazine and daily Dnevnik.


Topic 2009: Identity

The collapse of the Iron Curtain in 1989 triggered a frenzied phase of nation-building in Eastern Europe, while some Balkan nations embarked on armed conflicts aimed at strengthening national, religious and cultural identities.


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