Some Indonesians Are Shackling and Imprisoning the Mentally Ill in Sheds

Because mental illness is often thought to be a result of spirit possession in Indonesia, an estimated 18,000 individuals are detained in sheds and backyards for years by their own families.

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Apr 14 2016, 5:00pm

A 24-year-old woman lies with her wrist and ankle chained to a platform bed at Bina Lestari healing center in Central Java. After her husband abandoned her and their five-year-old daughter to marry someone else, she began to experience depression. Photos by Andrea Star Reese.

Mental illness is still sadly misinterpreted through many parts of Indonesia. Schizophrenia, for example, is often understood in superstitious terms—and is thought to be a result of spirit possession, or a curse. For this reason, families sometimes detain affected family members, shackling them in sheds and backyards for years on end.

The practice is known as pasung, and according to a recently released 74-page report by Human Rights Watch, it's estimated 18,000 individuals are subjected to this treatment throughout Indonesia.

VICE spoke with the report's author, Kriti Sharma, about some of the cases she saw, what prospects freed people have of rehabilitation, and how Indonesia can end the practice once and for all.

Note: The report refers to mental illness as "psychosocial disability." This is the term we will use.

A woman chained in a room behind her family home in Ponorogo, East Java. She eats, sleeps, and defecates in the same spot.

VICE: Can you tell me more about how cultural beliefs play into this?
Kriti Sharma: What I will say is that it's not restricted to rural areas. In Jakarta, there is still a lot of superstition, even in the capital city. I met one man there, a father, who consulted twenty-seven faith healers for his daughter before he even consulted a doctor. We are not just talking to people who have a low level of literacy or education. We're also talking with people who have university degrees. People still believe psychosocial conditions are the result of a curse or being possessed by evil spirits. Having said that, shackling does tend to occur in areas where there's no access to services.

You traveled all over Indonesia while writing the report. Can you tell me about some of the cases you saw?
The worst case I saw was a woman who had been locked up for fifteen years, defecating, urinating, eating, and sleeping in the same room. She'd initially been locked up for raiding the neighbors' crops. As the father was tired of having to pay for the damage, and as traditional healers weren't improving her condition, he decided to lock her up in a room of the house. The windows had been partially boarded up, so it took a while for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. But then I saw this woman crouching on the floor, completely naked, amid a pile of rubble.

She was so desperate to get out that she had used one of the stones that kids in the neighborhood had been throwing at her to break down the cement floor and had tried to dig her way out. When her father found out, he tied her hands behind her back. As she could no longer use her hands, she had to bend down until her head touched the floor to eat. She had lost the use of her legs, too. She basically had to crawl and crouch on the floor. There are no words to describe the condition I found her in; she was treated worse than an animal. The thought that someone had been living in her own excrement and urine for fifteen years in a locked room, isolated, and not given any care whatsoever is just horrifying. She has since been released.

This man lived shackled in stocks for nine years in a back room in his family's home in Cianjur, in West Java

What happens to these people once they're removed from captivity? Are they ever able to be rehabilitated?
I met people who had been chained for many years. They often can't speak and suffer from muscular atrophy because they can't walk or move around. However, when provided with the right support and services, their condition improves rapidly, and they're able to lead productive lives. I met a twenty-nine-year-old woman with a psychosocial disability who had been locked in a goat shed for four years by her father. Once she was released and had access to mental healthcare, she was able to live a normal life. She even started a business selling fermented soya bean cake at a roadside stall.

How do you talk to families who treat people like this? How do families respond to you?
It's important to understand that families use shackling as a last resort. It is extremely difficult for a parent or sibling to take the decision to chain or lock up their relative. Nearly all the families I spoke to told me they shackled their relatives because they felt that they had no choice. This is why government needs to do a better job of offering humane alternatives and providing access to mental health services and other forms of support.

So you don't believe simple empathy is enough to eradicate pasung?
No, this is not about empathy. We can't fight this by feeling sorry for them. It's about making sure that their human rights are respected. In Indonesia, under law, these people do not legally have the same rights. Their family members make their decisions on their behalf.

Before he died, this man lived chained to a platform at Kyai Syamsul's traditional healing center in Brebes, in Central Java.

But surely empathy can be one of the things that motivates us, right?
Obviously, and that's why we've spent a lot of time on multimedia; on photos, on videos to show the reality of shackling. Because most people have not necessarily seen it with their own eyes. You could be living next to people and not know that their family shackles them.

And how do you think we can curb the underlying superstition creating this problem?
One way is to highlight the positive examples of people who used to be shackled, but today have been reintegrated into the community and are living independent lives and have jobs.

Lastly, you say this is one of the most difficult research assignments you've ever approached. Can you tell me about this?
Before I came to Indonesia, I had seen photos of people being shackled—I had seen films of people chained up at home or in an institution. But nothing can prepare you for the reality and the horror of seeing someone shackled for fifteen years at a time and the appalling conditions they live in. Many people told me that it's like living in hell. I don't know how to else to say it. It's really like living in hell.

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