How Internet Guru Teal Swan Lures Followers – and Why It Should Worry Us (Podcast)

The self-styled healer is great at getting attention. But is she qualified to treat mental illness?

Teal Swan Gateway podcast
Teal Swan at her spiritual retreat. Credit: Nora Ballard and Matt Laumb (GMG/FMG)

If you’ve found this article by Googling “Who Is Teal Swan,” you can bet Teal Swan isn’t happy about it. The online guru and self-styled healer attracts followers through her own search-friendly self-promotion, sometimes by using provocative phrases that people type into YouTube or Google at their most desperate moments.

Teal Swan is the subject of Gizmodo’s excellent new “The Gateway” podcast. For our new “Shoot This Now” podcast, about stories we think should be movies, we interviewed “The Gateway” host Jennings Brown and producer Jessica Glazer about why Teal Swan may be dangerous. You can listen on Apple or Spotify or right here:

Teal Swan has legions of followers who say she has helped them. But she also has many online detractors who say she plays with fire by trying to treat serious mental illnesses despite a total lack of formal qualifications. (Teal says she can see people’s auras and souls, among other abilities.) The Gateway focuses on a former follower of Teal Swan’s who killed herself, and investigates whether Teal Swan was a factor in her decision.

Teal Swan is blunt in her talk about suicide, sometimes asking her followers to envision themselves dying, in very specific terms. The Gateway notes the concern that such an approach can be a trigger for vulnerable people who would benefit more from traditional mental health treatment.

No regulations prevent anyone from presenting themselves online as a spiritual guru and healer — or from giving potentially bad advice about mental health issues, including suicidal thoughts. In our talk with Brown and Glazer, we discuss what if any responsibility companies like YouTube have in helping people like Teal Swan promote themselves.

We’re in completely new territory: People are free to believe what they believe. But Swan’s case suggests that the person who is best at luring people online may not be the best person at at actually helping them.

Here’s an example of how Teal Swan uses search terms to her benefit. If you type in the phrase, “I want to kill myself” on YouTube, one of the first videos to appear is a Teal Swan video entitled simply “I Want to Kill Myself (What To Do If You’re Suicidal).”

It includes the number of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline — 1-800-273-TALK — and a disclaimer saying Teal Swan’s words should not be taken “a substitute for medical advice.” But what follows is a 24-minute talk from Swan, which offers up both advice and self-promotion.

It has received more than 160,000 views. Swan has more than 460,000 YouTube subscribers.

Should YouTube change its algorithm to promote traditional mental health services? Should the government regulate so-called healers like Swan? There are difficult First Amendment issues here, as Brown and Glazer note.

Let us know what you think, and please check out The Gateway. It’s engrossing and entertaining — Teal Swan is a fascinating character, who is disarmingly direct in answering her critics — but it also digs deep into issues that go far beyond one guru.

If you or someone around you is struggling, please call 1-800-273-TALK or chat with someone at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.