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Mental illness afflicts many

Straits Times - October 12, 2001

Robert Go, Jakarta – One in three Indonesians living in big cities are suffering from some form of mental illness because of increased poverty and bloody sectarian conflicts in some areas of the country, the latest government survey showed. Not all cases are severe enough to require hospitalisation and a majority of them involve depression, stress and other minor neuroses.

But the survey, conducted periodically in 10 major Indonesian cities, also suggested that most patients have not had proper treatment due to lack of medical personnel, drugs and money. Indonesia has only 430 licensed psychiatrists and 33 hospitals that are equipped to deal with psychological cases for a population of nearly 210 million.

The government "recognises the danger of having so many stressed-out and imbalanced individuals on urban streets" and is adopting a new approach to fight mental illness, a top official at the Health Ministry said.

The biggest problem is lack of money – the state does not have enough cash budgeted for hospitals or to provide adequate treatment for poor communities. Mr Azrul Azwar, Director-General for Community Health at the ministry, said: "Our budget is very limited. Until now, we have neglected non-essential services such as providing good mental health care."

He further explained that the government is currently encouraging Indonesian hospitals, private and government-run, to start providing mental health care and counselling services to patients. More psychiatrists and mental-health specialists would be trained and assigned to work in some 7,200 community health centres throughout the country.

"We will provide more subsidies and assistance to the needy. We've noticed a drastic increase in the number of cases suffered by the poor in the last five years," Mr Azrul said. "Most Indonesians would be ashamed to admit that they or their relatives and friends have psychological problems. This has to stop as it makes the problems worse," he added.