World Mental Health Day: Turning the Pain into Power

The luxury of being able to speak about her mental health is not a luxury journalist and women workers organiser, Dian Septi Trisnanti is often afforded…

“In the daily battle against oppression and harassment of women, the impact of our work on our own mental health is not often a consideration for people working in unions and NGOs across Indonesia. 

We fight for change and yet the way we work is an extension of our patriarchal culture. You have to be macho even as a woman. You have to be strong with an angular jaw. 

Mental health – a universal human right?

There’s a lot of pressure, especially as a union leader. You hear awful stories, but you can’t cry or show too much emotion otherwise you’re considered to be weak. 

So, I don’t tell my colleagues when I’m struggling. Instead, I turn off my social media and phone. I might stay home to read and write. Or sometimes I travel – alone. I take me time. 

This means, the right to good mental health is not something many women workers are even aware of. Life has shown them they can barely expect to be treated with respect or earn a fair wage – when you’re in a daily struggle to exist, mental health isn’t a luxury afforded to you.

It’s almost an incomprehensible concept when you’re raised as a commodity to be exploited – as a girl to help with domestic chores, as a woman to meet men’s demands both at home and in the workplace. 

Turning pain into power

But every woman has her story. Many women contact us at via our community media platform, Marsinah Media – named after the worker and trade union activist who was kidnapped and killed by the regime and has become a symbol of the labour struggle in Indonesia – to tell us about sexual harassment or gender based violence at home and in the workplace. 

The first thing I can give them is my time and listen to their stories. 

Sometimes, I might then accompany them to meet with therapists at Yayasan Pulih, a non-profit who specialise in working with victims of violence.

Sometimes, I help to share women’s stories in written or film format. I have just finished a documentary about two sex workers – still a hugely taboo subject – and am working on my second book, which is about sexual harassment, due to be published next year.

This is healing for me. I’m also a survivor of sexual harassment, when I was a kid within my own family. It has happened again with friends and also colleagues in various forms – all enabled by society. 

Protection and support

I learn from the women I interview. But, it can also trigger my complex PTSD. I can’t always predict the trigger but I can make sure I’m in the best possible position to cope with it. I make sure I’m mentally and physically strong before I do an interview. I’ll exercise, maybe do some yoga and meditation, and eat healthily. I used to drive my motorcycle to go to interviews, but Jakarta is incredibly busy so it’s not good for my stress levels. I now walk or get the bus.

This way, I know I have the energy to tell their stories and ensure the stories are full of love. 

Of course life is hard and we all face pressures, but we can make each other stronger by supporting each other. We have to support women’s mental health because women are at the heart of making change. 

If mental health really is a universal human right, then everyone should have access to it. There should be government policies that make counselling freely available to those who are most vulnerable, and not just give them drugs.” 

*This article was written up from an interview conducted in English. The headline is taken from a line that signs off Dian’s email, also lyrics from The Script: ‘Every day, every hour, turn the pain into power.’

About the author

Dian Septi Trisnanti

Dian Septi Trisnanti

Founder of community media platform Marsinah and women workers organiser, Indonesia.


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