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In a cluster of villages in the Ponorogo district in Indonesia’s East Java province, there exists an unusually high concentration of people who are living with a wide spectrum of mental disorders.
- Tens of thousands of Indonesians with a mental disorder were believed to shackled
- The majority of the people with the illness are poor farm workers with low education
- Many mentally-ill patients are now earning a regular income by selling bags, mats and eggs
Hundreds of mentally ill villagers are believed to have been born with malnutrition, and couldn’t get the care they needed due to a lack of access to mental health services.
“In 2008, when the media blew up with the story of our villages, they called it ‘Villages of Idiots’, and, of course, we were not comfortable with the title,” said Eko Mulyadi, leader of the Karangpatihan village.
The Ponorogo district came under the spotlight after more than 400 people were reported as suffering from mental illness.
The alarming number meant almost every family had at least one member who had a mental disability.
It was also reported that some people were shackled or isolated in cage behind their family homes — a common practice known as “pasung” among many Indonesian villagers — used to treat the mentally ill who are often considered as being possessed.
‘People just just ate what they had’
HRW report on how Indonesians with psychosocial disabilities are shackled or forced into institutions.
A Human Rights Watch report in 2016 said while the practice was banned in 1977 by the Indonesian Government, tens of thousands of people with a mental disorder were still shackled and tied down to their bed or caged.
Mr Mulyadi said the plague of mental health disorders could be traced back to the massive harvest failures in the 1960s, when the country suffered from civil unrest and social divisions during the anti-communist hysteria.
“People — particularly pregnant women — just ate what they had, which was tubers [a part of the plant that grows beneath the soil’s surface] from unhealthy soil,” Mr Mulyadi told the ABC.
“As a result, many infants were born with malnutrition, including iodine deficiency, that allegedly caused them to suffer mental disorders.”
In the Ponorogo district, the villages of Karangpatihan, Krebet, Sidoharjo, and Pandak have the highest number of people living with a mental health disorder, and they have a few things in common.
The people in those villages live on slopes covered in unhealthy soil, which has long made it hard to cultivate and difficult to access transportation.
Mr Mulyadi said the majority of people were poor farm workers, had poor education, and ate ‘tiwul’ (made from cassava to substitute rice).
While the villagers’ quality of life improved with the support of donors after their stories were told by media around the world, Mr Mulyadi said additional food packs and rice did not change their situation.
Mentally ill villagers can ‘no longer be underestimated’
After witnessing the struggles in the village, Mr Mulyadi created a program with livelihood projects — such as raising cattle and poultry — so that villagers with mental illness could become more independent.
“They were very dependent before, and we realised people wouldn’t keep helping them in the long-term, and if we let that happen, they would be even more dependent on others,” Mr Mulyadi told the ABC.
“Even when there was just a random car driving by, mentally ill villagers would run to it because they thought it would distribute some stuff.
“We wanted to make a big change to counter the pessimists who said these people were useless.”
Mr Mulyadi and other residents in Karangpatihan formed a non-government organisation called ‘Rumah Harapan’ — or House of Hope — to involve the mentally ill in their community empowerment program.
The program included various activities and training to help them become more self-reliant and self-sustaining, including generating a regular income.
The villagers sold mats and eggs from the poultry they were given, Mr Mulyadi said, and also earned money by selling cat fish and livestock they raised.
“At the end of the day, they can enhance their own lives and no longer be underestimated”, he said.
Mr Mulyadi said there were now fewer than 100 people with a mental disorder in his village, a significant drop from a decade ago.
“Many of them were born in the 1960s, became sick and have already passed away,” he said.
“But now we see people have a better quality of life and they have income to buy better food.”
Villagers who were a burden are now breadwinners
Another man, named Zainuri, has also been helping villagers with mental disorders develop skills in arts and crafts at ‘Rumah Kasih Sayang’ — or House of the Passionate — for seven years and is now the coordinator of 25 volunteers.
He said more than 250 disabled villagers across nine villages including Karangpatihan came to the non-government organisation regularly to produce home decorations, accessories, bags, and even batik fabrics.
While Zainuri admitted it took a lot of patience to teach people with a mental disorder, he said the program had been very successful.
“To say intellectually disabled people are not capable is very wrong, they are actually capable, only if we give them a go,” he said.
Zainuri said their products, including mats made from fabrics from factory waste, were already sold in markets in Jakarta and Surabaya, two of Indonesia’s biggest cities.
The villagers usually sold two mats in a day for about $2 each, which Zainuri said was more than what people typically earnt in the district.
“We have equipped them with skills that really changed their life and economic situations,” he said, adding that people who used to be a burden on their families were now becoming breadwinners.
The organisation has been educating pregnant women and newly wed couples about the importance of eating nutritional foods, and teaching mentally ill people how to live a healthy lifestyle.
With their newfound independence, people living with a mental illness were now socialising with other people — something their parents had prevented them from doing, Zainuri added.
The Karangpatihan village is now trying hard to shake its infamous reputation of being a “village of idiots” and re-establish itself as a tourism destination.
“We have beautiful spots in our village,” Mr Mulyadi said.
“Visitors can come to our place to see how these people create something with their hands.”
Many visitors from other areas in Indonesia have also travelled to Karangpatihan to do a comparative study and find inspiration for tackling similar problems in their home regions, Mr Mulyadi said.