‘Open the lock please’: COVID-19 exacerbates practice of shackling the mentally ill in Indonesia

In Bekasi on the outskirts of Jakarta are several known private institutes for people with mental illness. These include Al Fajar Berseri. 

Founder Marsan Susanto, 51, said that he realised his calling was to take care of people with mental health disorders when he one day saw a mentally ill person eating rice from a garbage dump full of flies.  

A former coachman without any psychiatric education background, Susanto set up the institution in 2005 and relies on donors for funding.

The institution is now home to about 500 people with mental health problems. 

Those who are deemed harmless are free to move around in the 8,000 sqm facility, but some who are diagnosed as severely disturbed are housed in a building with bars.

Susanto said that two of the patients were chained because they have been aggressive since their admission.  

When CNA visited in early September, a man was seen with his right wrist chained to a bar. He used his left hand to throw orange peel at Susanto as the latter stood in front of him.

“Authorities brought him here a few days ago after they found him on the streets. 

“We don’t know his name nor anything about him as he barely speaks. But he has been aggressive since he arrived,” Susanto explained.

When they start to calm down, they will be freed from their shackles, he said. 

Susanto said that local authorities would often bring in people wandering the streets to his institution. 

At the start of the pandemic though, he did not dare to take in new people as he was afraid they may have COVID-19.

While Al Fajar Berseri is privately run, he does get some support from local authorities.

The head of Bekasi’s social agency visits the institution once in two months, and officials from the local health centre visit quite regularly to monitor the condition of the patients, Susanto said. 

As the COVID-19 caseload has now declined, the Indonesian government hopes it can pick up where it left off in terms of ending shackling cases. 

“We will increase mental health services and access to it, and work on cross-sectoral programmes,” said Jaya of the health ministry. 

For now, Yasa in Karangasem continues to be confined while his mother Seken prays for him regularly. 

“I pray so that Yasa is healed and given salvation,” she said.  

The full names of those with mental illnesses and their family members have been withheld in order to protect their identity.

Watch CNA Leadership Summit live on 10 October 2022 from 1.30pm SGT via cna.asia/leadership-summit. 


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