Fearless

Best-selling author fights to expose shocking ineptitude by her country’s government

Nova Riyanti Yusuf, a novelist, mental health advocate and former member of Indonesian Parliament, has devoted her career to improving Indonesia's underfunded mental health system. (Kemal Jufri/The New York Times)

Conditions are poor in Indonesia’s underfunded mental health system, where patients are accommodated together in cells, as many as 40 at a time, with difficult-to-manage patients commonly chained to the bars. The government estimates as many as 19,000 mentally ill people are kept chained, and a recent Human Rights Watch report recorded numerous cases of shock therapy delivered without consent, and without anesthesia. In some facilities, patients are without basic toilet facilities and forced instead to urinate in a gutter.

What improvements have been made are due in large part to Nova Riyanti Yusuf — a novelist, mental health advocate and former member of Parliament. In 2009, the psychiatrist-by-training ran for Parliament with a sharp focus on creating and passing a bill that would organize the national mental health system.

By the time her term finished five years later, Nova had passed the mental health law, all the while enduring sexist attacks and efforts to intimidate her, and defying her own party’s leadership. “In Indonesia, if you’re in politics and you’re single and you’re female, you’re very prone to be slandered,” she told The New York Times in a riveting profile of her determination to singlehandedly effect reform.

It is not the first instance of Nova demonstrating courage or being an outlier. Psychiatric training was a second and safer course of study for the would-be author, whose family warned her of the dangers of being a writer under the repressive Suharto regime in the 1990s. But after the Indonesian president was forced to step down in 1998, the then 21-year-old took to writing so-called “fragrant literature” under the pen name NoRiyu — including the best-selling Libido Junkie: A Memoir for Radicals, published in 2005. Her books fell into the genre known for its depictions of female lust and women who were opting for high-powered careers over early marriage. She also wrote film scripts, and contributed columns to Indonesian Playboy, all the while pursuing psychiatry.

After losing her seat in Parliament, Nova took up a fellowship at Harvard and is now pursuing a Ph.D. in public health at the University of Indonesia, continuing her work with patients and lobbying for government reform — although progress is disappointingly slow.

Read the full story at The New York Times.

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