Mental health in Indonesia needs help

Our health care system is certainly not perfect. I have written many times about ways I feel mental health care in particular should be improved in Canada to ensure access and the best care for those who need it.

It isn’t perfect and we should continue striving for less stigma, more understanding and better services – yet I am also sometimes reminded of how much better our mental health care system is than in many other places in the world.

I recently read an article that gave me just such a reminder. It dealt with mental health care in Indonesia and the common practice by family members and the state of locking up individuals with mental health conditions.

In the past, confining the mentally ill was a common occurrence nearly everywhere. Cruel treatment, isolation and even execution were thought justifiable when people believed evil spirits were causing the symptoms. Thankfully, most modern societies have moved beyond those dark days and we have proven and effective treatments that can help those with psychiatric illnesses function in society. Even those who are not easily treated can be helped with care and compassion.

Unfortunately, lack of education and resources means the mental health care in Indonesia still falls very short of acceptable standards.

Although the practice of confining the mentally ill was banned in Indonesia in 1977 it remains common. Families sometimes place mentally ill relatives in cramped quarters with their own filth and no physical contact for years. Human Rights Watch estimates there are 18,000 people living this way today in Indonesia.

With a population of 250 million, Indonesia has only 800 psychiatrists and hospitals for the mentally ill can only be found in a few of the country’s 34 provinces and primarily in large cities. Many in the country cannot afford transportation to mental health services or the cost of treatment.

On top of the huge issue of access and resources, there is a persistent stigma and superstition attached to mental illness in this country. Faith healers are typically the first place families will go to get help for a sick relative. Healing centres rely on methods that are not only ineffective but can be dangerous and painful for those being ‘treated’.

It seems the Indonesian government is attempting to take steps to improve the situation there – they passed a mental health act in 2014 and are expected to sign a bill of rights for people with disabilities this year. However, this will likely take time, money and a concerted will to put into practice on the ground.

It is hard to imagine that things will get substantially better until conditions and education are vastly improved and a national movement to eliminate stigma can be implemented.

From here we can advocate for vulnerable people around the world by supporting some of the excellent non-profit organizations working in these areas. We can also remain grateful for our own good fortune in access to quality health care yet continue to advocate for improvements here at home.


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