Trapped in hell in paradise

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.

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Gusti spent six years of his life chained up inside a rundown room because his family had lost all hope. Today, after receiving treatment from Dr Suryani, he has recovered his health and spends his days translating Javanese texts into Balinese so he can sing the ancient Hindu texts.

“This comes from the Ramayana when Hanuman goes to Raka,” Gusti says as he shows Dr Suryani his latest painting. Gusti’s brother is sitting next to him in their family home, smiling nervously and Dr Suryani reminds him of how he resisted her at first.

“I was scared that we wouldn’t be able to pay, but the reality is that Dr Suryani followed through and continues to look after him and cover the costs. For that I am so thankful,” he says.

A few days after Dr Suryani’s visit, it looks like there is hope for Wayan too.

“Things have changed so much. My room is clean and it smells good. My wife and one of my children visited,” says Wayan from his room in the Bangli mental hospital. He now has his own room with a window and a private bathroom.

“I have to crawl because my legs are stiff after being in the stocks for so long. I had to be helped into the bath,” he smiles, “That was my first bath in years and it felt so good.”

For Wayan, it’s amazing what proper treatment and good care can do.

“When I get out of here I want to return to being a farmer … I am feeling so much better. Now I have hope.”

(This article was first broadcast on Asia Calling, a regional current affairs radio program produced by Indonesia’s independent radio news agency KBR68H and broadcast in local languages in 10 countries across Asia. You can find more stories from Asia Calling at www.asiacalling.org.)