Unfortunately, this post will sound a bit like a rant throughout, as it deals with something that I am personally involved and invested in: the treatment of the psychologically ill in Indonesia. I won’t be wiring a critique on my state’s healthcare system—as I’m far from qualified to compose such a piece—rather, I will concentrate on the general way the common populace perceive and, based on these perceptions, act toward the mentally ill.
Before we start this discussion though, we must ask why should anyone care about how the mentally ill are treated in Indonesia? Firstly, it’s because they are as human as anyone who falls in the category of ‘normal’. But also due to the way they are seen, and how their sicknesses are misunderstood, the sick would often find themselves unfairly stigmatized against, and barred from the medical care they sorely need.

I’ve met very few Indonesians—outside of those who dabble in the fields of psychology and medicine—who realize that mental illnesses are in fact diseases that demand our attention and appropriate medication or therapy. Most of the people I’ve met think of depression, bipolarity, and the plethora of cognitive disorders as a “phase,” a “quirk,” whilst condescendingly muttering that the sufferers just “get that way sometimes, it’s nothing to worry over.” Even if they exhume signs of suicidal tendencies. Of course, these responses downplay the tremendous amount of psychological, and at times physical pains inflicted by the minds of these individuals on themselves. And it’s unique sort of pain where the one thing that dictates who you are, what you do, your perception of the world, turns against you. Somewhat like being the child of an abusive parent, but with no way of ever escaping the abuser.

Worse is when the mentally ill are labeled as ‘freaks’. With the aforementioned ways that they are understood to be ‘different’ individuals, at the very least they would be fathomed as oddities who demand nothing more than a dash of caution. Yet when one is assigned the role of the social outcast of the group, then he would likely be treated with hostility. E.g. autistic children who become the butts of jokes, the intellectually impaired who are openly mocked, the potentially suicidal who are marred by tags such as ‘attention seeker’ or ‘drama queen’ and so on. Sadly, these acts of cruel labeling are common occurrences in Indonesia. We plainly don’t see why special needs individuals actually need to be cared for, not ridiculed.

Then there’s the doubt about the legitimacy of therapy and psychiatric medication. I’ve heard time and time again that the remedy for depression and likewise illnesses is prayer, meditation, or any other equally senseless methods. I am also saddened by the fact that some of my friends know they need medical attention, but do not have access to those types of aid. Why? Among the many reasons l’ve been told over the years, a few stand out: their parents think it’d be a waste of money, opting for “mind-altering” medicines is blasphemy for whatever god they and their parents believe, worst of all is when the sufferers fall prey to the misguided words of those who are supposed to be their betters.

I have to admit that this list of complaints has been going on for too long, but I beg your attention for one last point that I really need to address. That is, when an individual finally manages to receive the medicine or therapy they need after countless hoops, they will in most chances be shunned. I’ve taken my antidepressants and other pills in front of my friends, prompting them to ask those tablets and capsules are for. Presuming that these friends of mine would play the roles of supportive companions, I told them, and a surprising number began to look at me differently—mostly in a negative way. Beginning by saying things like, “they [the pills] do more harm than good, you know,” and, “you should really stop taking them and face your problems, like a normal person would.” Which is actually my preferred approach, had I been granted the ability to function like a well-adjusted human being without external help. Though there is one particularly ridiculous advice, which basically amounted to, “You wouldn’t need all those meds if you believed in God,” inclining me to guffaw at the person’s face (in his and my defense, we were both very drunk).

So, there’s another layer of challenges, where you have to commit to the medical program despite opposition from the people closest to you. Something I still struggle with every time I look at the pills on my desk. This is perhaps the toughest trail of them all, since one would have to be able to convince himself ceaselessly about the necessity of the medication, all the while being harangued about the evils inherent in his pills. But this obstacle is something which I believe requires a very personal approach. I sadly cannot offer a bulletproof way to sway your friends, parents, siblings, etc. to believe in the effectiveness of your specific program. Hence, I will stop talking about this point, and return to the topic at hand.

Why are Indonesians so callous about mental illnesses and the unfortunate who suffer from them? This is a question that must be addressed if anyone in Indonesia wishes for better treatment for the mentally ill. Starting from acceptance, support, and recognition for the efficacy of therapy and medicine. Put simply the correct reply to the question, in my opinion, is that the general populace must be better educated in the topic of psychological disorders.

In my many, many years of schooling I may have only heard the topic of mental illness discussed once or twice—even in Civics classes, where the supposed goal of the subject is to teach students how to behave morally to their fellow citizens, especially to the people in need. And these addresses came in the form of special lectures from guest speakers, or seminars. They are not part of the standard curriculum, implying that mental illness is a secondary issue in Indonesia, that will be dealt with at an unspecified time, in either the near or far future. This needs to be changed.

For the mentally ill of Indonesia to be perceived in a more positive light, an extensive educational program must be developed and utilized to its utmost capacity. I’m not speaking only of modifying the topics discussed in Civics classes, but of using whatever means necessary to illustrate the point that mental illness should be a matter of national concern. Equal to any issues that plague my country, the likes of poverty, religious extremism, or anything else that is currently the ‘hot topic’ of the media. Television programs, magazines, radio broadcasts, social networks, all forms of mass media have a moral obligation to support a population in need, who have been forced into the darkest corners of public awareness. Without such an approach, these vulnerable people will continue to be ignored, ostracized, harassed, essentially suffer from any form of abuse conceivable by the human imagination.

However, I am by no means declaring that mental illness should be an issue that overshadows all the other problems Indonesia is presently facing. What these paragraphs mean to say is that psychological diseases should be lifted up in our list of concerns; that it be acted on with the same rigor as combatting malnutrition, corruption, illiteracy, and the endless list of predicaments.

My hope, is that one day the mentally ill would be seen and treated as any individual with a physical sickness; that they won’t be treated differently because of the abstract maladies they are forced to endure. And would be entitled to the same level of care, patience, and love of someone who suffers from a lifelong disease.


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