Goop's got nothing on Indonesia's own new age medicine industry. The insane wellness brand run by Gwyneth Paltrow may be worth $250 million USD, but it's built on the back of an industry full of shady claims that Indonesian brands have been making for decades. Need something to fix your brain's functions? We've got that. Improve mental clarity? Check. Expand your "peaceful awareness"? OK… maybe that one's only on Goop.
Point is, Gwyneth is making a mint off selling the kinds of traditional herbal medicines Indonesians have relied on for years. But here's the rub, in Indonesia, these medicines are far cheaper than actual medical treatment by a real doctor, and that's also what makes them far more dangerous than any of the stuff Gwyneth is pushing.
I'm not talking about basic jamu—elixirs made from stuff like roots, bark, and herbs—that cures sore throats or the dreaded masuk angin. Tolak Angin is still the best thing in anyone's medicine cabinet and I will seriously fight anyone who says otherwise.
I'm talking about the herbal medicines that promise unbelievable cures, the kinds of jamu that will fix your kidney stones, cysts, cancer, or mental illness. The internet is full of jamu hawkers pushing barely regulated cure-alls at rock-bottom prices. Take a quick look online, and you're bound to come across a product by De Nature, a leading alternative medicine provider, that promise to have a solution for everything from hemorrhoids to depression.
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Bio Aura, one of their most popular products, will supposedly open up your aura, make you more charismatic, and even better looking. It's such an awesome drug, that, at Rp 150,000 ($10 USD) a bottle, you almost can't afford not to take it.
The promotional text even takes a moment to shame people suffering from depression, writing, "This is a solution for those with depression, stress, and other mental disorders. Sometimes those with shallow minds would consider suicide, but that is indeed an idiotic way out.” Now if that's what charismatic looks like, then I'm (the insanely charismatic) Hamish Daud.
Here's why this is so dangerous—it's easy to look at some fake-ass "medicine" that promises to cure your cancer and call bullshit. It's far harder to do that when it comes to mental health, especially in a country where mental illness is so often misunderstood and stigmatized.
Remember, we're all still, in some dark corners of Indonesia, trying to stop people from putting the mentally ill in chains. We're living in a society where depression and suicide are so shameful that families try to keep it a secret.
In a culture where mental illness is taboo, a lot of people would rather choose an anonymous, and far cheaper, solution like Bio Aura than a visit to an actual doctor. Therapy costs as much as Rp 800,000 ($55 USD) a session, and it doesn't come with glowing testimonials posted on their Facebook page like stuff Bio Aura does.
“I used to have very low self-esteem and it was difficult for me to talk to girls,” wrote one happy customer on one website selling a similar product. “Then, I started taking Arjuna Charm Activator pills. Amazing! I felt my pride and self-worth increase.”
Maybe the pills really work. Maybe it's all a placebo effect. No one knows because all of this is untested. The thing about jamu is it's part of our cultural heritage, and for centuries, that was a totally great thing. Western science has proven time and time again that plenty traditional medicines do have actual medical uses.
But what we have today is an industry exploiting our feelings about much-loved traditional medicines with capsules of stuff made in a factory somewhere. It's a perversion of tradition in the sake of making some cash off other people's desperation.
For Bagus Utomo, the founder of Schizophrenia Caring Community Indonesia, the danger of medicines like these is all too real. When his older brother started to show signs of schizophrenia, his family didn't know what to do. They didn't even know what to call what was going on—so they just didn't call it anything.
When his parents figured out what was wrong with their son, they too turned to the kinds of traditional medicines sold online for help—with disastrous results. Bagus remembers one specific online store, called Madness Healthscope, that bluntly marketed its products as "crazy medicine."
“Many have fallen victim to the misleading information provided by Madness Healthscope, as well as products by NASA, a producer of alternative medicines based in Jogja," Bagus told VICE. "One in particular called Natural Brain Power even claims to be able to cure schizophrenia."
Bagus was able to get his brother the help he needs, and now he runs Schizophrenia Caring Community Indonesia, an online community where people can share stories, support, and advice for those living with mental illness. He's now trying to offer people real advice on the internet, which is sadly the same place most people find advertisements for fake cures.
"Now that we have a national healthcare system, the public needs to understand the importance of healthcare that's based on scientific research, so that they are not easily influenced by bombastic claims of these products," Bagus told VICE. "We also need to trust the government, which has chosen to endorse specific therapies and medications based on the best research available."
Alternative medicine isn't going to go out of style anytime soon. But the next time you see someone pushing a new age cure to what ails you, whether it's your dad's next-door neighbor or Margot Tenenbaum herself, just step away from Instagram and ask yourself, should I be getting my medical advice from the same place I post pictures of my cat? Probably not.