It is still common for families in Indonesia to place mentally ill relatives in shackles. (Photo courtesy of the Rehabilitation Center of Renceng Mose)
Running two Indonesian rehabilitation centers he co-founded for people with mental illnesses is how Brother Ferdinandus Harun reflects the inspiration his congregation gave him.
The Brothers of Charity congregation exudes the charism of charity, a common thread throughout its history since its foundation in 1807.
Founder Peter Joseph Triest epitomized this charity in the motto that he gave the congregation: "God is love."
With God’s love, its members have taken their place in the world and let God’s love shine, particularly in the lives of those who experience very little love because of illness, disability, poverty or marginalization.
“Many people living with mental illnesses are not taken care of properly. With our congregation as an inspiration, I and some fellow brothers set up the rehabilitation centers,” says Brother Harun, 55, who joined the congregation in 1992.
In October 2005, about a year after completing a four-year psychiatric nursing course at the International Institute Canon Triest in Belgium, the Floresnese religious brother co-founded the first center called Sahabat Kita in Purworejo in Central Java province.
“We named the rehabilitation center Sahabat Kita [our friends] because we wanted to be close friends of people living with mental illnesses. We wanted to embrace them, treat them properly instead of ignoring them,” he says.
Their first two patients came from a hospital in neighboring Yogyakarta province.
“Both are still receiving treatment at the center. One patient lost contact with his family, while the other’s family want us to take care of him,” he says.
Others now at the center were either found wandering the streets of the city or were sent there by families unable to cope.
With 10 therapists, the center can accommodate about 30 patients and has taken care of nearly 200 men since it was founded.
In September 2014, nine years after Sahabat Kita opened, Brother Harun co-founded another rehabilitation center called Renceng Mose in Manggarai district in predominantly Catholic East Nusa Tenggara province.
“Renceng means being together in harmony. Mose means living life. We wanted to live together with mentally ill people in harmony. We wanted to support each other,” he says.
Unlike Central Java, East Nusa Tenggara had very limited health facilities that could offer treatment to people living with mental illnesses. The only psychiatric hospital was established just three years ago in Kupang, the provincial capital.
“Renceng Mose was the first health facility offering treatment to mentally ill people on Flores island,” he says.
Since its establishment, the center, which has a clinic and 10 therapists and doctors and can accommodate about 30 patients, has treated more than 2,000 people.
“We went to families to look for patients. Many were shackled by their families to wooden logs and confined in small places, which made them look like caged animals,” Brother Harun says.
Brother Ferdinandus Harun from the Brothers of Charity.
A disgrace to the family
Shackling remains a common practice in Indonesia when dealing with mentally ill people who are considered a threat to others.
“Being seen as a disgrace to the family and a widely held view that they cannot be cured are the main drivers of such practices,” Brother Harun says.
A 2018 Indonesian Psychiatric Association study revealed around nine million people in the country suffer from mental illnesses, with 400,000 having schizophrenia.
Meanwhile, the Health Ministry says about 19,800 out of 450,000 people registered as mentally ill in Indonesia are shackled for various reasons, the majority of whom live in rural areas.
Since 2017, when the Social Affairs Ministry intensified efforts to end the practice, more than 3,400 mentally ill people have been freed from their shackles.
“We find patients such as these suffer from injuries to their legs. We heal the wounds so that they can walk again while offering psychiatric care,” he says.
Therapies offered by both centers include spiritual and social ones that involve music and sports.
“We want to help patients to take care of themselves, to be self-reliant and to live at ease in society,” Brother Harun says.
Ignoring the risks
Brother Harun admits it has not always been easy dealing with patients. “There’s always risks. Some hit and spit at us when we are trying to treat them. It’s a challenge we face every day.”
Yet the religious brother refuses to be daunted because he says what he and his fellow congregation members are doing is meaningful.
“We treat them just like we would healthy people. It’s because of God’s love,” he says.
“They do not know what to do. It is our job to save them. God wants us to share love with them. Serving them is a test to measure the quality of our love to God.”