Just finished listening to The Gateway: a 6-part podcast series about “Teal Swan, a new brand of spiritual guru, who draws in followers with her hypnotic self-help YouTube videos aimed at people who are struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts.”
(So if you don’t want to read a long post about those things, you should bail out here.)
I’d never heard of Teal before this, and I still don’t know anything about her beyond what’s in this report. But I do know a few things about psychiatry that aren’t in the series.
And based on that…I have complaints.
The show makes a lot out of Teal potentially being a “suicide catalyst” because a couple of people who looked to her for help did end up killing themselves.
And I really do mean just a couple. We get a bunch of in-depth research into the details of one case, and I think one other was mentioned, and that’s it.
Remember that this woman does self-help videos for people who are already suicidal. So this is like calling an oncologist a “cancer catalyst” because some people go to her for help and then die of cancer.
The narrator also seems very suspicious of the community formed by Teal’s fans. He quotes some discussion posts about suicidal ideation in her Facebook group, noting that they have dozens and dozens of replies. He gravely explains that suicidality can be contagious.
He gravely fails to explain that support groups are a legitimate form of treatment. Yes, that’s right, Actual Psychiatrists endorse the idea of severely-depressed people being able to comfort and reassure each other!
Now, if the depressed Facebook fans in this group ended up throwing themselves off of bridges at a higher rate than depressed people at the average hospital-run group therapy session, I would understand the concern.
But nobody makes that accusation. Nobody even suggests it.
Instead they just seem to find it inherently suspicious that…a certain percentage of suicidal people end up committing suicide.
Okay, time for a non-depression digression.
Teal describes experiencing things like “hearing colors” and “seeing sound” since childhood. Her parents, never having heard of such a thing, were understandably concerned, and tried to get help.
She ended up being mentored by this guy who claimed she was perceiving all these things through a Special Spiritual Connection. And it sure seems like she’s taken it to heart. In the recordings we hear from her as an adult, she confidently and matter-of-factly explains things like “I can see how your cells are working, I can see people’s auras.”
The narration doesn’t offer any alternate explanation. Listeners could understandably come away thinking “welp, that settles it, she’s delusional.”
Even though…synesthesia is a thing.
It’s real. It’s not harmful. It’s neither a delusion nor any kind of magic. It’s more like how a colorblind person would look at a red apple and see it as gray — you’re perceiving reality, it’s just that you’re wired to process it a little differently.
Synesthesia may not be the best-understood brain condition in the world, but it is a recognized and natural one.
You’d think the narrator would mention all that!
I didn’t need the guy to argue the point with Teal herself. Given how many people apparently visit/email/follow her, I’m sure at least one of them has already mentioned it, to no effect.
But it deserves to come up in an investigative report — not least because the odds are good some of your listeners and/or their children have synesthesia. And unless they’ve already found better-informed support than Teal’s parents did, they’re going to come away thinking “oh no, this means I/my kid is delusional.”
(…or possibly “oh wow, I/my kid has a Special Connection to the Universe too.”)
Back to the depressing stuff, because I have more:
There’s a bit in the last episode where a psychiatrist says one of Teal’s methods “is not recommended for patients who are acutely suicidal.”
A moment later the narrator goes “so, this treatment is not recommended for suicidality.”
No! Stop! Back away right now, do not pass Go, do not collect $200.
Depression comes in different levels, in different intensities. There’s a hell of a gulf between “I go through my days fantasizing about jumping off a bridge, I need someone to have a sympathetic conversation with me about it” and “I am standing on a bridge right this second, I need someone to talk me down.” One is a chronic problem that you get to meet with long-term strategizing. The other is Not.
And after the narration fuzzed the two together, it occurred to me…maybe the production team is has no idea that non-acute suicidality is possible.
Maybe they’re approaching this whole story with the assumption that everyone on Teal’s Facebook page is typing comments with one hand while using the other to hold a knife to their wrist.
That would explain a lot of the low-key weirdness in the way they’ve framed things. Of course they’d get squirrelly describing a group of “people in imminent danger of death” sitting around having an extended Facebook conversation rather than getting rushed to the ER.
How do you do an extended research project on a purported treatment for suicidal depression, involving international travel and months of reporting, and totally miss such a key fact about the people you’re researching?
In contrast, when Teal is specifically talking about depression and suicidal ideation — and how she’s able to make a genuine connection with people because she’s experienced them herself — that part, I find totally credible. On a basic level, her perspective rings a whole lot truer than all the off notes the narration keeps hitting.
To be clear, the show does present several genuinely shady and suspicious things that Teal’s done.
She confidently tells people that emotional turmoil is caused by early childhood trauma, regardless of whether they remember any or not. Some of her fans express their devotion in unsettling ways. There’s the whole “you all are privileged to experience my special connection to the universe” thing.
And on the basic legal front, for a while, she was giving her “students” official-looking certificates that featured the Seal of the State of Utah, even though she wasn’t endorsed or licensed in any way by the state. (They tried to come after her for it. She moved to Costa Rica.)
I would not go to Teal Swan for guidance/healing/life coaching. Or recommend her to anyone else.
It’s just that those details keep getting buried under things that the narrative tries to frame as shady and suspicious, that really aren’t.
(Also, she doesn’t require any “followers” to pay dues, and she doesn’t ostracize anyone for leaving the community. Would’ve been nice if they’d said that upfront, instead of saving it for the last of 6 episodes of “is she running a cult??” speculation.)
One bonus mini-complaint before I sign out.
Teal, like so many people on the interwebs today, misuses “triggered” to mean “having any kind of strong emotional reaction.”
The narrator is generally skeptical about her grasp of legitimate psychology…but apparently not enough to double-check her stated definitions against, you know, the DSM. Or the dictionary. Or Wikipedia. No, he just picks up the misuse and runs with it.
Given how often this series talks up the strengths of trained and licensed therapists, you’d think they could’ve at least hired one to proofread.