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At a Glance: Dukun, Kyai, and Mental Health in East Java

A man who lived a few houses down from Mas M killed himself this week. On the day, he helped his child get ready for school, dropped her off by motorcycle, came home, wrote his suicide note, then hung himself.

He wasn’t a poor man, though he was unemployed; his wife sells vegetables, and the family survives solely on her income. There were troubles in the marriage. She had recently demanded a divorce. His suicide note was addressed to her: if you want a divorce, here you go: divorce–dead.

The news of the man’s passing made the papers and was featured on the local evening news. The neighbors are still gossiping about the amount of blame to place on the wife’s shoulders in the matter. Mas M is convinced that the man had an ongoing psychological issue, and I’m inclined to believe him since I can’t fathom a parent of a young child taking his or her own life and being mentally stable at the time.

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I don’t have statistics because the annual federal reports about healthcare in Indonesia that I have read focus primarily on more seemingly more pragmatic healthcare concerns like clean water, basic medical and nursing services, dental care, and infant mortality and health. Mental health is problematically but understandably not at the top of the lists of concerns in developing countries, and it’s not given nearly enough attention worldwide since mental illness and psychological disorders can be so invisible.

Even though I can’t quote stats for you, believe me when I say that mental therapy, counseling, and psychiatry are not widely available here in Indonesia when compared to a place like the United States. At the very least, mental health care options are not widely advertised or promoted as a normal or acceptable path to health and well-being. This is partially because modern mental healthcare hasn’t become part of the culture here yet (i.e., this isn’t because everyone knows about modern mental healthcare and rejects it outright).

The man who killed himself was undoubtedly suffering from something like acute stress or depression, undoubtedly psychologically burdened by his lack of gainful employment and his crumbling marriage. In Javanese culture, all three of these things are very looked down upon, particularly for men: divorce leads to gossip and divorcees can be shunned; men should always be employed, especially fathers and husbands, if they want to be viewed as respectable and contributing members of society; and family members of people who commit suicide are often implicated as being somehow off, wrong, or not right (i.e. implicated in not providing a supportive enough environment for their family member not to kill themselves, regardless of the family member’s mental health status or the actual home and family environment).

Many of the dukun I’ve been talking to help people with more than physical health issues, finding lost objects, matchmaking, or pregnancy and birth; they often also provide psychological and couples counseling, relationship and family advice, and mental/emotional support during difficult times. If someone is going through a rough time in their lives–feeling like they need help getting their crops to grow successfully so that they can eat and earn money, worrying about their lovelife going to hell in a handbasket, or finding difficulty coping with a serious illness like cancer or diabetes–they usually receive some level of counseling and mental health support when they pay a visit to a legitimate dukun,* even though this is not the primary purpose, in their minds, for the visit. This is a good thing not only because mental health care professionals are hard to find, particularly in rural areas, but paying for professional help is usually quite far outside the realm of financial possibility for the average Javanese villager. In fact, the unaffordability of modern medicine for some segments of the population is one reason why the services of dukun are still in high demand in some areas (mostly those that are more remote).

For coping with psychological issues, most villagers seem to rely heavily on religious leaders, and the general culture view of mental illness in that someone has strayed too far from religion and therefore has too many thoughts or wrong thoughts (which lead to wrong action, which leads to strife and tumult). The kyai is an Islamic cleric and religious leader who also offers healing services, and many villages have more than one depending on the size of the population and the strength of the religious culture in the area. As dukunkyai can be men or women, though women kyai work primarily with female audiences/visitors. They use religious teachings and spiritual counseling to help people overcome their problems. They often prescribe lifestyle changes, encourage prayer, and promote fasting, charity, and adherence to Islamic doctrine as interpreted by whatever Islamic organization/”denomination” of which they are a part.

What is interesting is that kyai, by and large, do not believe in the practices or validity of dukun, though the reverse is certainly not the case, especially when the dukun is Muslim. For the more orthodox practitioners of Islam, belief elements of the supernatural beyond standard Islamic cosmology are unacceptable and can even be heretical. For example, belief in both benevolent and malevolent jinn is standard, but the existence ghosts and ancestral and place spirits–even from Javanese cosmology and mythology–is strongly questioned. However, a villager could consult a dukun on a Saturday and visit a kyai on a Sunday for the very same reason and not be bothered by the contradiction in the slightest. The more devout among them simply say “percaya gak percaya,” I believe but I don’t believe. There’s no reason to commit either way if one or both can produce results; the end is more important than the means when well-being and religious righteousness are concerned.

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What I have been learning so far about dukun never fails to involve contradictions, and I am going to start writing more about this. I’ve finished collecting data and finally have all of the interviews transcribed, so I’m moving on to the next phase of my project, which is analysis and write-up. I’ve been doing a lot of reading and listening, so now it’s time to speak and write.

Now that I’m not going to graduate school next fall, the possibilities for what I write and how are even more limitless than before; I’m technically not required to produce a written body of work in any format as a condition of my grant, but I had been aiming to produce an academic article in the form of a comparative piece using data from my thesis and Fulbright projects. However, I’m not sure that’s the direction I want to go any longer. I’ll probably aim to get an academic piece of some kind published, but I’m going to take the rest of the month to decide and explore my options. I don’t want participants voices to be lost and I don’t want to have to cut their stories down into little data-bites to cram everything into a short article, but I don’t want to lose sight of the original goal, which I still think is worth pursuing. I’m just contemplating alternative–additional–possibilities.

In the meantime, I’m going to start writing more and sharing here. Time to get my thoughts and new understandings on the page, and there’s no better place to start. Blank Word documents scare me.

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I don’t really know how to wrap this post up considering how heavy the content was at the beginning. I hope that any of you who may have stigmas about mental health care consider reevaluating your ideas about the topic and make sure to support any of your friends and relatives (or yourself) in getting the care they need, if they ever need it, even if it’s just accompanying them to church, the mosque, a healer’s house, or a doctor’s office. There’s no way of knowing the inner workings of someone else’s mind or to know for sure whether any form of external support could have prevented the little girl’s father from taking his life, but it’s too much for a child to have to lose a parent to suicide and too much for any family to deal with.

Thanks for reading,
Sam

*There is such a thing as a “fake” dukun or dukun palsu, which is a person claiming to be a dukun and not actually doing anything for clients or someone who really does have supernatural powers (percaya gak percaya!) but whose primary motive in providing services is to earn as much money as possible from unsuspecting, innocent clients who are genuinely seeking help (or those nasty clients who are looking for someone to curse their neighbor or rival).

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