Thursday, July 7, 2011

Trapped in hell in paradise – Seeking to unchain Bali’s mentally ill

Amid the frangipani trees and a coconut grove in the jungles of Karangasem, East Bali, Wayan Wenten has been trapped for almost a decade in medieval stocks in a small room that reeks of urine and feces.

It is a side of Bali life that the tourists never see – mentally ill Balinese held for years like animals, in chains, cages and even medieval stocks. The practice, known as pasung – literally ‘stocks’ – is common in Indonesia.

The mentally ill are locked up by their own families, forced to eat, sleep and defecate in the same spot while their illness goes untreated.

Wayan is blind and according to one of Indonesia’s leading psychiatrists, Dr Luh Suryani, is also suffering from schizophrenia.

“My legs are very sore,” he says rubbing his ankle, “I haven’t moved them in years. I am not allowed to be freed. My family would not let me.”

Wayan’s wife, who works at the house of the village’s high priest, believes her safety would be at risk if her husband were to be freed.

“When he was free he would get very angry and violent toward his wife, he would pull her hair and put a knife to her throat. If he was stressed he would go crazy at her,” explains the village high priest.

Dr Suryani, a former professor of psychiatry is visiting the family to try and convince them to admit Wayan into the island’s mental hospital.

“I was surprised when I discovered that a lot of Balinese have chronic mental disorders and are in chains. When we have animals we clean them, wash them, give them food and give them a special place, so why are family members treated like this?” she asks.

Dr Suryani has helped more than 7,000 more like Wayan, but struggles against cultural stereotypes and taboos around mental illness. Many in Bali believe the root of mental illness lies in the supernatural, which Western medicine is unable to treat.

Her unique approach to psychiatry, which includes meditation, Hindu spiritualism, preventative mental health programs and Western anti-psychotic medicines, is designed to address these limitations.

“If the healer asks them [Balinese] to go to a doctor they will follow the advice of the healer, but if the healer says it’s a supernatural problem they, the healer will treat the problem,” explains Dr. Suryani.

“After I introduced meditation and relaxation, people saw that a psychiatrist could also understand the supernatural. We don’t talk to the gods or anything but we try to translate the healer concept into daily understandings of mental disorders,” she says.

So far there have been some extraordinary results. By Rebecca Henschke

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