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Teal Swan (born Mary Teal Bosworth) (1964–) is an American self-described spiritual leader and "catalyst" who has attracted immense controversy for her approach to mental health, allegations of being a cult leader, and claims to having supernatural abilities. Swan herself claims to have been a victim of child abuse, and that her proclaimed extrasensory abilities is what made her a target for said abuse. She has claimed that these abilities coupled with said trauma gives her special insight to human suffering, and that it has granted her the ability to see the "full picture" of human experience.
Child of the Satanic Panic
Someone who claims to be a victim of childhood abuse really shouldn’t be doubted or viewed with skepticism without good evidence (for reasons related to producing an atmosphere of doubt that will prevent survivors from coming forward), but in the case of Swan things are complicated by the fact her claims to abuse are directly about satanic ritual abuse. In the podcast produced by Jennings Brown called The Gateway which focused entirely on the subject of Swan, it was revealed that Swan became aware of the extent of this abuse due to attending therapy sessions from the infamous Barbara Snow who claimed to specialize in "recovering repressed memories". This is deeply problematic due to such “recovered/repressed memory” therapy being strife with controversy, especially relating to confabulation and the supposed tendency for patients to develop vivid false memories under the pressure of their therapist. This is especially the case with Snow as the government had investigated her specifically under the allegation of doing just that.
All of this has deep ties to the Satanic Panic of the 1980s essentially total bullshit. This is not to say that Swan is deliberately lying about her childhood abuse, or even that it is known to be definitely false, just that the context surrounding her claims gives relevant grounds for doubt.
Swan herself has adopted elements of Snow’s "Recovered Memory" therapy in her own self-styled form of therapy that she dubs "The Completion Process". This should raise alarms to any experimental psychologists in the room.
Views on mental health
Despite having no training in or academic qualifications in psychology, Swan often provides advice on mental health and suicide that experts have expressed deep concern about often describing her approach as "dangerous" and "irresponsible". Despite encouraging her followers away from suicide and describing it as a tragedy, she also describes it as a sort of “reset” button… which is uh… fucked (and completely inaccurate). It also potentially puts her in legal jeopardy since encouraging people to commit suicide is a crime in some US states. Mental Health professionals have also expressed concern about Swan encouraging the suicidal to vividly visualize their suicide (suicidal ideation); something that experts in suicide prevention highly discourage. Swan tends to attract greater controversy whenever one of her followers ends up committing suicide, sometimes even receiving blame from families and loved ones of the deceased. She frames this as "ridiculous" but given she is acting as an authority in treating suicide despite not having the credentials or adequate training to say she is acting "recklessly" is putting it mildly. Couple this with the above-mentioned “completion process” if she is in fact trying to “recover” repressed trauma she may be introducing emotional distress through confabulating memories in her clients that wouldn’t otherwise experience such distress — another potential avenue for harm.
Disdain for psychiatry and clinical psychology
Something that should not be a surprise to anyone is the utter disdain and contempt Swan expresses towards the establishment of mental healthcare; and rather self-interestedly, the requirement of licensing and proper accreditation. On her blog, Swan stated:
There is a push right now for it to only be legal for licensed professionals who are trained by way of mainstream education to be speaking about and treating the mind and emotions. I’ve always been clear — and I’ll say it again now — I’m not a trained doctor or psychologist. I’m a personal development revolutionary and a spiritual leader. While I can appreciate the risk of people who really don’t know what they are doing, doing more damage, this scares me. This scares me because there is a huge conflict between professionals who think the brain gives rise to consciousness and professionals who think consciousness exists beyond the brain and in fact gives rise to the brain itself. Because of this argument, problems with thoughts and feelings can’t be classified as purely a medical concern related to the brain. It also scares me because of how backwards the mental health field is at this time. Let’s not forget that all medical students at one time (and for a long period of time) were taught that bloodletting was the way to heal someone from illness. This as we know, killed them. It just never occurs to us that psychology and psychiatry students are learning things that are equally as de-railed today.
Swan uses the "science was wrong before" fallacy to try to discredit all of psychology, while disregarding that bloodletting has actually been found to have to be effective for a few medical conditions. That would almost be akin to saying that modern chemistry is flawed because at one point chemists believed in the existence of the phlogiston. It's another bag of worms entirely to expect that fields like psychiatry and clinical psychology embrace supernatural notions of non-materialist neuroscience to appease the interests of woo peddlers like Swan. Healthcare professionals are not more mistaken when they choose not to include supernatural notions of consciousness that escape naturalistic empirical study into their practice. This approach to mental health that Swan is implicitly advocating for has all the dangerous hallmarks of alternative medicine and should be looked at with equal suspicion.
Always the one to express humility, Swan expressed this about herself in the very same blog:
“ I am in a very difficult position teaching about suicide as a spiritual leader because my theories often differ from the mainstream psychological community. This focus that people in the media have put on me in relation to suicide has painted the opposite picture of me than is the reality. They never speak about the psychologists and psychiatrists who specifically seek me out because they agree with me and see what I’m doing as a step forward for the mental health field. They don’t interview the abundance of people who say their lives were saved by my material. What they do not get is that when I talk about suicide, everything I say demonstrates that I get people who are suicidal better than anyone else does.
Mental illness denial
Engaging in the tropes of mental illness denial and what some would argue is straight-up ableism, Swan had this to say on her blog regarding psychiatric care and mental health.
The only way to justify abuse is to think you deserve it in some way. How do people justify abuse at the hands of mental health professionals? By becoming convinced that they are mentally ill. I will tell you that after 23 years of being immersed in this world of mental health from both sides of the fence, most people who have been diagnosed with mental illness are not mentally ill at all. Instead, they have developed adaptations to cope with painful environmental distress; but outside of those distressful environments, these adaptations are no longer beneficial and are instead detrimental. Instead, they feel in a world that does not allow feeling.
It is a travesty when feeling is the enemy of the very business that is designed to care take people’s feelings. What if it isn’t wrong to feel furious or depressed or anxious or even suicidal? What if you feel that way for a valid reason? What if feeling that way doesn’t mean something is wrong with you, but instead that something happened or is happening to you to lead you to feeling that way? Then it means you aren’t mentally ill. It means that the way you are behaving is an adaptation, not an illness.
Swan is sort of subtly implying that if one is genuinely mentally ill then it would be justifiable to abuse them, which is gross. Other than that this concept of "adaptations" does not in any way contradict what mental illness is conceptualized to be within healthcare, this is pretty much what characterizes many anxiety disorders especially phobias and disorders like post traumatic stress disorder. But the fact that they are detrimental to a patient or are often the cause of distress is why people with such disorders receive treatment and are entitled to request evidence-based treatment to begin with. Just because the behaviour or symptom in question is adaptive in some contexts, does not negate its ability to produce dysfunction or distress in other contexts; and it's that very distress and dysfunction that characterizes something as a disorder as it interferes with a person's quality of life. If people want to alleviate themselves from those symptoms in a science-based way it seems grossly unethical to dismiss their experiences as merely feelings and encourage them to suffer instead.
Also, merely feeling depressed, frustrated, or anxious isn't what qualifies as a disorder in the mental health field. Swan's open embrace of normalizing suicidality is exactly what makes her controversial among suicide prevention experts. This trivializes the struggle of suicidal people and fails to treat it as the urgent problem that it is.
Disorders like major depressive disorder are often cited as having various neurological causes in atypical monoamine production and subsequent neurotransmitter effects (though the evidence does not seem to suggest a universal neurophysiological cause across patients), with various genetic factors playing a role. Depression is also cited as being one of the leading causes of disability worldwide. Given such evidence, there is a pretext for the justification of medical intervention — which is what justifies the continued existence of psychiatry.
The reality is no one knows enough about these medications. No one knows enough about the brain. No one knows enough about any aspect of this business to be able to say exactly what these medications will and won’t do. Psych meds can make a person worse instead of better so the entire business of psychiatric medication from the creation of the drugs to the testing of the drugs to the administering of the drugs is based on trial and error. People lose their lives every day because of this willingness to take risks that should never be taken. And what’s worse is we are taking those risks with children now. We are medicating the brains of children whose minds have not even developed yet. And you know what? No one knows how it will turn out. We are dolling out incredibly dangerous psych meds like candy for every single emotional and mental complaint. And what people in the field will not be honest with you about is that if you subject yourself to these drugs, you are essentially subjecting yourself to a human experiment. An experiment you may just regret for the rest of your life. That being said, I believe in freedom. If people are desperate, they should absolutely be allowed to take these kinds of risks. But they should be well informed about just what an experiment it is before deciding to take a risk.
People in this industry love to hide behind what they are taught in medical school or psychology courses in college. They do so under the belief that the information shared there is the “best info we have yet”. But is it? If you follow the “money trail” for who is funding many of the studies that then get converted into standard training for new students, you will want to throw it out the nearest window. So many alternative techniques exist for ‘mental illnesses’ all over the world. There are different approaches and methodologies that actually do work. It is a travesty when mental health professionals fail to seriously and sincerely explore them. The world is in a spot relative to human health, where it must shift toward integrative medicine.
There is so much wrong with what Swan is saying here that it is hard to keep track of. For one she mischaracterizes how mental healthcare works by describing it as merely handing out drugs like candy for any negative emotion. That's not how things work in the real world. Also claiming that the quality of the studies is shoddy while citing no examples doesn't bode well for an honest representation being made here. The shill gambit of course comes with all its related fallacies.
The reason why alternative medicine is not embraced in the mainstream medical system is that the clinical evidence finds no statistically discernable effect, or there is no clinical evidence on efficacy at all. If Swan is concerned about the "risk" of treatments having potentially unknowable future consequences then she is, in essence, contradicting her very stated values, nothing is riskier than alternative medicine to which we have no idea what effects they have or worse actively know that they have no positive effects at all. Of course, she believes "desperate" people should have the right to take these risks, so that gets her a bit of an out. It still doesn't explain why such "risks" in psychiatry are reasons to be opposed to it, but not so in alternative medicine. Stranger still when the "risks" in psychiatry are actively mitigated or controlled for ensuring benefits outweighs the risk, but no such cost-benefit analysis exists in alternative medicine.
General woo peddling
Efforts to justify these beliefs are typically grounded in quantum woo, and non-standard characterizations of energy that defy lessons from the physics classroom. It would be quite the surprise if someone declared themselves a New Age spiritual leader and didn’t endorse this nonsense. It sort of comes with the territory.
On cult allegations
Some claim that Swan has believed that she would be destined for fame and glamour since she was very young, on the basis of her supposed extrasensory abilities that allow her to access the will of 6th dimensional beings. This only scratches the surface of the more what-the-fuck side of things in terms of allegations against Swan. Swan claims her knowledge and awareness of information comes from her extrasensory abilities and spiritual connections, but it has been said by previous housemates who have alleged that she has an immense library of New Age books, self-help spiritualism guides, and a tendency to “Google everything" to build her persona. Folks who claim to be former friends or followers of Swan have stated that Swan herself is deeply mentally unstable, is prone to manipulating her followers once she can isolate them, and is capable of and regularly engages in intense emotional abuse. Examples range from convincing someone they were sodomized by grey aliens, to trying to convince someone her cat is a holographic projection capable to sensing people’s health issues. Supposed ex-followers have also stated that she doesn't handle criticism well from her followers, and tends to lash out when she is questioned.
Allegations of her being a cult leader stem from her alleged expressed desire for power, her glamorizing of death, her apparent persecution complex, and her private resort for her followers located in Costa Rica where members allegedly live isolated from their friends and family. The claims to having supernatural powers doesn't exactly help on the public relation sides of things either.
Weird takes on COVID-19
Never to disappoint Swan of course had to express some worrying views on the COVD 19 pandemic. Writing on her blog she says:
As I find myself in the air in this high speed car crash, no part of me is concerned about a virus or the damage that a virus could do (which is surprising given that I am a person who has a deep respect for submicroscopic pathogens). What I am concerned about is the real threat in this situation… The decisions being made. I am concerned with the psychology that created this entire car crash in the first place. I am concerned with the many conflicts that will arise in association with Covid-19. And I am the very most concerned with the fact that the collective consciousness of mankind has never been infected with this much fear. Fear can open the door for people to control you in whatever direction suits their own best interests because fear puts you in a state to want to be told what to do. Mankind will find itself divided. There will be those of us who would gladly give up freedom and certain needs (things like civil liberties, the right to govern their own bodies, the freedom of assembly, the freedom of speech, privacy, the need for human touch and togetherness) for survival and a sense of safety. Many of those same people would expect you to do the same. They would even vote for someone to force you to do it. On the other side of this polarity, there are those of us who have a deep understanding that to caretake life is much more complex than simply making sure that life is long. Those of us who would gladly risk death to really live. We would fight for those freedoms and that closeness which are about to be sacrificed on the alter of humanity’s desire to prevent death, no matter the cost to life.
There is a lot of "yikes" to unpack here. The car crash Swan mentions is purely metaphorical to the pandemic itself. In this passage there is a clear legitimization of those who were more hostile to the quarantine requirements of the pandemic. Swan appeals to a lot of the rhetoric used by anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers with this reference to healthcare policies being motivated by "fear". It's not exactly subtle. Then there is the insulting and explicit framing of those who support pandemic policies as being motivated by fear and willing to give up their human rights. Those who are willing to "really live" are framed as virtuous for not conflating a long life with a good life (which under the context of a pandemic has the worrying implication of letting people die of COVID-19). To the make the appeal to anti-vaxxers more apparent Swan says:
The stage is being set for health to be the new form of discrimination. The stage is being set for militarization, suspension of freedoms and rights, changes in the law that allow indefinite detention, the banning of physical forms of finance, censorship, compulsory vaccination and other forced medical procedures and treatments, tracking, certain activities and businesses being permitted and others outlawed. The stage is being set for war… the ultimate form of conflict.
There is a obvious echoing of anti-vaccination arguments and conspiracy theories that have been voiced throughout the COVID-19 pandemic within this post that warrant at the very least some suspicion that Swan herself is an anti-vaxxer. Though this blogpost in question presents plausible deniability, it arguably can not be said for certain.
- Lebo Diseko, Teal Swan: The woman encouraging her followers to visualise death. BBC, 23 November 2019.
- About Teal Swan. Archived from tealswan.com, 14 April 2022.
- See the Wikipedia article on Barbara Snow.
- Fact or Fiction: You Can Be Prosecuted for Encouraging or Causing Someone’s Suicide The Reeves Law group.
- Teal Swan's Stance On Suicide. Archived from tealswan.com, 14 August 2018.
- The Mental Health System, The Land of No Return. Archived from tealswan.com, 10 September 2017.
- Gergor Hasler, Pathophysiology Of Depression: Do We Have Any Solid Evidence Of Interest To Clinicians? World Psychiatry. 2010 Oct; 9(3): 155–161.
- Be Scofield, The Gucci Guru: Inside Teal Swan’s Posh Cult. Archived from the original at medium.com, 8 March 2018.
- The 'Covid Conflict' Archived from tealswan.com, 6 April 2020.