In 2018, when Kaylee Friedman saw a post from a therapist stating that "we all have the privilege of choosing our mindset,” [emphasis original] she immediately thought of all the people who don't have any such privilege and how damaging that messaging could be for them.
"Said the rich white lady," Friedman, who now works as a therapist in Princeton, New Jersey, and runs an Instagram account promoting mental health awareness, wrote in a DM to the poster, Nicole LePera. “As healers, we need to be careful about this whole subconscious ‘manifesting’… it’s a dangerous idea that perpetuates the idea that it’s all on the individual to make it,” Friedman wrote. “We have gross systemic issues that shouldn’t be ignored when talking about wealth and abundance."
In the conversation that ensued, LePera defended her stance. “I listen to many mentors in this arena who are of different races and grew up in poverty talking about how this very idea changed their lives,” she wrote. “My deepest belief is that we are 100% responsible for our thoughts, behaviors, and reactions,” she wrote in a later message. “This is empowerment. Regardless of where you came from.”
Normally, this kind of exchange would be of little concern—there are tons of people on social media with potentially harmful opinions. Except that LePera, better known as @The.Holistic.Psychologist, is a psychologist with a PhD, a booming online therapy business, and 2.6 million Instagram followers as of this writing; by the time this story is published, she’ll likely have more. Her graphics explaining trauma, the “reparenting” process of setting boundaries and building up self-love, and “ego work” net tens of thousands of likes per post.
Actress Hilary Swank left a glowing comment on one of the account’s most recent posts: “I so wish I had known you 25 years ago when I started my journey down psychology lane… I get more from your posts than my years of sit downs. Thank you, a million times over!”
LePera’s work centers on the self and “empowerment,” and how personal choices affect our mental, physical, and spiritual wellness. She calls the process she promotes “self-healing,” although the principal central to it could also be described as self-determination. Per LePera, we have all of the tools we need to heal, especially from childhood trauma, within reach.
Telling people they have the power to solve their own problems is one of the stickiest tenets of pop-psychology-driven self-help; gurus ranging from Tony Robbins to Marianne Williamson base their advice around it. But LePera takes this to an extreme, promoting the idea of total personal responsibility for issues including trauma and mental illness, encouraging her followers to eschew the mental health establishment and widely accepted treatment options, like therapy and medication in favor of “self-healing.”
In a post from November 2018, LePera explicitly discouraged talk therapy as a route for treating trauma: “Traditional psychology is based around the idea that you can spend week after week talking about trauma and make improvements,” she wrote. “In my experience (and from the other therapists who’ve confided in me) this rarely leads to healing.” In a post from December 2018, LePera discouraged her followers from seeking a diagnosis for mental illness and “identifying with their disorder,” because “the thoughts you have around diagnosis are the most powerful deciders between sickness and wellness.”
LePera categorizes these rejections as part of the #selfhealers movement she founded in 2018. A Forbes profile from January (when she only had 1.5 million Instagram followers) described her as a “leading” voice in questioning the mental health establishment. “I was trained that all people can do is basically manage symptoms,” LePera told Forbes. “I wish I had been taught more about trauma, epigenetics, and the importance of conscious awareness. These are things I teach every day now because they lead to immense healing.”
When VICE first covered LePera and the #selfhealers movement in April, Philadelphia-based cognitive behavioral therapist Marla Deibler called the tenor of LePera’s work “irresponsible and unethical,” particularly her support of non-evidence-based or debunked theories that range from shaky to scientifically unsupported, like physical trauma storage, polyvagal nerve theory, and EMF pollution, presented as fact on LePera’s Instagram feed and elsewhere, like her YouTube channel.
Yet LePera’s followers told VICE how resonant they found her work—one 31-year-old follower even said that she stopped seeing her therapist thanks to LePera, and a 28-year-old follower said she dialed back her therapy sessions from once a week to once a month after following LePera.
“I have seen a few therapists over the years, and nobody has ever come close to helping me heal as much as Dr. [LePera] has,” 31-year-old Ally, who asked to withhold her last name for privacy reasons, told VICE. “I am the living, breathing, self-actualizing proof that what [LePera] teaches works.”
Raizy, 28, echoed the praise. “I had a multitude of mental health [diagnoses], and I was told that I will forever be dependent on medication and therapists and that anxiety and depression were just a part of who I am and will be for the rest of my life,” she said. “The Selfhealers movement has changed that… I am no longer dependent on medication, nor do I suffer from anxiety or depression anymore. While I do still have difficult days, as all humans do, they don’t lead me to spiral into depression anymore, because I am utilizing the tools and insights that I’ve gained through following Dr. Nicole.”
Deibler, the Philadelphia-based psychologist VICE spoke to in April, said hearing that people have discontinued traditional therapy in favor of following LePera’s work on Instagram made her “sad.”
Posting mental health-related content is only part of LePera’s internet work, however; she also runs a $24/month subscription service called the SelfHealers Circle, which launched in November 2019. According to the SelfHealers Circle website, members get access to perks including a monthly live Q&A with LePera, monthly guided meditations, book club access, a monthly playlist of LePera’s “favorite music to dance, cry, and play to,” and “exclusive ‘how to’ content with practical steps to guide you in restoring the mind-body connection.”
According to LePera’s Facebook page, enrollment for the SelfHealers Circle sells out quickly every time she opens up slots for new members. “The last enrollment sold out in just a couple of hours so setting an alarm for notification might be helpful,” she wrote in April.
LePera has both private access to her subscription service’s members, as well as a large public platform—more than five times as many Instagram followers as fellow healer Marianne Williamson—from which to project her views.
But those views, particularly the ones placing full responsibility on the individual for mental health issues, strike many experts as deeply irresponsible. Taking systemic injustices and discrimination into account, including racism and sexism, it’s clear our problems are not always our own fault—nor is solving them always in our control. In the midst of a racial reckoning in the U.S., some of LePera’s followers and Instagram-psychology peers are saying they’ve had enough.
As the popularity of LePera’s logic of “self-healing” has grown, her formerly supportive peers on Instagram have become increasingly critical of the stress she places on personal responsibility without acknowledging other forces at play in trauma or the healing process. Those peers have asked her to reconsider her views and the potentially dangerous line of thinking they say she promotes to her followers.
But they say that LePera has proven resistant to this criticism, blocking or deflecting people who question her. Her critics within the community say they are alarmed by her refusal to accept criticism, especially criticism that her work erases the way oppression affects the mental health of those who experience it.
“[She’s] misinforming people and presenting this sort of white, privileged, Karen spirituality that excludes everybody else,” Seerut Chawla, a London-based psychotherapist who helped spearhead the backlash against LePera, told VICE. “And using psychological language and her education and her title to legitimize it.” On May 4, Chawla published an open letter to LePera outlining the potential negative effects of LePera’s call to self-heal on her audience.
“As helping professionals we have an ethical duty to consider the most vulnerable populations when speaking publicly on healing and mental health,” Chawla wrote.
“A depressed, anxious or traumatized person might read these posts and think “I’m addicted to being depressed, or anxious. I’m addicted to being traumatized.” The size of your following coupled with your standing as a doctor of psychology adds cachet and weight to what you say, so people believe it without question.”
In an apparent same-day response, LePera posted a photo of herself with a caption addressed “to this community,” describing her inner child’s response to the criticism leveled at her by Chawla and others: “I read people (many who are trained within the same field as me) reinforce the false belief I have since childhood: that I’ll always feel isolated. And so I breathe. And so I look at the screen shots from this community to remind me of why I’m here. And so I remember the greater vision in my heart.”
“I trust that you will question, take what’s for you, + leave what isn’t. My work is not ‘right,’ I am not the ‘authority figure’ on healing. I am offering another path. A path that I fully understand isn’t for everyone,” she wrote.
Chawla was initially a fervent supporter of LePera. “The only way I can describe it is drinking the Kool-Aid,” she said, adding that she followed LePera’s work closely, especially after seeing how many other psychologists on Instagram followed @the.holistic.psychologist and reposted LePera’s content. “It became really apparent really quickly that she was such a big deal,” Chawla said. “I figured clearly Nicole must know something that the rest of us don't know and that she's revolutionizing the field!”
Now, Chawla feels different. “Saying something like ‘emotional addiction’ is a horrendous thing to say to somebody, especially somebody who's traumatized. They're having big emotional spikes and drops, and then you're telling them ‘it's because you're addicted’?” Chawla said. “There's nothing trauma-informed about that.” LePera has not responded to multiple requests for comment and detailed questions for this story, nor did she respond to requests for comment on earlier stories from VICE.
Chawla said she received an outpouring of support from her peers in response to the open letter, and that many people were eager to take LePera to task for the things she posted—but that LePera ducked criticism. The blowback escalated as LePera’s fellow posters found themselves increasingly concerned with her lack of content addressing the health impacts of systemic racism, which they say became impossible to ignore in late May.
After the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent period of unrest in the U.S. and globally, millions took to the streets, and also to Instagram, in support of Black lives. During that time, LePera repeatedly failed to address the outpouring of Black pain online and in the streets, some of her followers and Instagram psychology peers said.
Friedman said she felt compelled to share her experience—nearly two years after it happened— after LePera was called out by a nurse named Christabel Mintah-Galloway.
Mintah-Galloway, who is Black, told VICE she started following LePera in the last year or so, after someone else reposted LePera’s content onto Mintah-Galloway’s feed. She even joined LePera’s SelfHealers Circle, and particularly enjoyed the psychologist’s “reparenting” and “inner child” content. “I didn't consider her personal politics or none of that,” Mintah-Galloway said. “I didn't even look at her work that didn't resonate with me.”
But in the wake of Floyd’s killing, Mintah-Galloway said her perspective on life shifted; she was angry and devastated, looking for solace. “I remember going to LePera’s page, wondering genuinely what she has to say about it, what resources or what work she has to put out regarding this that could be beneficial to me in my pain, to other people I know in their pain. And that's when I saw that she hadn't spoken about it.” Mintah-Galloway said she found this silence hurtful and borderline insulting. So, she dropped a comment on LePera’s most recent post at the time, expressing her disappointment.
LePera DM’d Mintah-Galloway, who shared screenshots of the DM conversation in a pinned Instagram story. “Hi, I wanted to reach out,” LePera wrote on May 27. “Could you educate me on what you’d like to see more of?”
Mintah-Galloway responded that she was too tired, and pointed LePera to other white women on Instagram as examples of anti-racism. “I go look at your page and I become disheartened [by] how little resources I get as a black woman from someone I give my money to,” Mintah-Galloway wrote. “If you still practiced psychotherapy, I couldn’t have you as my therapist.”
In response, LePera offered Mintah-Galloway a refund on the SelfHealers Circle membership she purchased, which Mintah-Galloway accepted, and to buy Mintah-Galloway lunch, which Mintah-Galloway rejected.
In her Instagram story commentary, Mintah-Galloway speculated that LePera was a “Trump supporter” (which LePera denied) and derided her for ignoring the plight of Black people in America. But Mintah-Galloway said her outrage was about more than LePera herself; it was also about the system that allowed LePera to reach incredible heights of visibility, apparently without any consideration to a basic tenet of reality for Black and non-white Americans.
“I cannot imagine having gone through six, seven, eight years of schooling in mental health care and having never educated yourself or been educated on racism in America, as an American therapist,” Mintah-Galloway told VICE. “It became about the people in these positions of power providing mental health services for a whole demographic that they're incredibly ill-equipped to assist. How could you not know? It almost felt inexcusable to me. So then the other option in my head then is, you truly don't care, because there's no way you have never heard this before.”
On June 3, LePera blocked Mintah-Galloway, and posted an apology to her community in which she explained she blocked the Black woman for “verbally insulting and abusive comments” (Mintah-Galloway did write that LePera could “go fuck herself”) and apologized to her followers broadly for “not speaking on the reality of systemic oppression sooner.”
Nicole LePera's full apology letter, via Instagram
Danielle (who spoke to VICE on the condition her real name wasn’t used ) said that Friedman’s posts about LePera confirmed the reason she unfollowed @The.Holistic.Psychologist in February, after beginning to follow her in 2018.
“I know she has helped a lot of people,” Danielle said. “The intention seems to be to make people feel empowered to take control of their trauma and mental health—but in the end, it feels very disempowering to me to be told that it’s all about how I choose to see it.”
Danielle said LePera’s popularity was obvious, but the self-reliance messaging behind the account’s content gradually turned her off. “Her posts made me feel bad about myself and I felt crazy that so many others really felt seen by her,” Danielle, who is white, said. “I found Kaylee [Friedman]’s Instagram recently, and then learned about how [LePera] has mistreated and harmed Black women [from Friedman’s pinned Instagram story] and then saw things from a totally different point of view that I hadn’t even thought about. Kaylee just made me feel relieved and that I wasn’t crazy for feeling so invalidated.”
Mintah-Galloway said she ultimately found Instagram’s mental health community to be supportive of her callout, but she also never received an apology from LePera for the way LePera described Mintah-Galloway on Instagram.
LePera hosted conversations with Black women on her Instagram page, and posted a graphic for Juneteenth.
“We are not free until we are ALL FREE. Black. Lives. Matter. #selfhealers,” LePera wrote in the caption.
Otherwise, LePera’s detractors say her content has essentially returned to business as usual, with none of their major concerns addressed. But all of the mental health professionals VICE spoke to for this story said the problem extends beyond LePera’s perceived ignorance.
“Any comments and DMs, she is apparently laying claim to as her intellectual property,” Chawla said. “And that includes anything that happens in this Facebook group, where people are talking about their intimate pains and traumas, their deepest traumas!”
VICE reviewed LePera’s terms of service, particularly two clauses relating to intellectual property. One clause is comparable to intellectual property clauses on other forum-style websites, like Reddit, where the things people post are licensed for reuse, but don’t technically belong to the company. But a separate clause diverges a little further from the norm, stating that “any contributions originally created by you for us shall be deemed a ‘work made for hire,’” which would grant LePera extended rights to reuse and reproduce those “contributions.”
It is unclear which clause covers what user-submitted content, as LePera did not respond to inquiries on the subject, which leaves open the possibility that material posted in private spaces explicitly made for discussing and healing trauma could legally be used at LePera’s discretion. “She's saying ‘That's my personal property now to do with as I wish,’” Chawla said. “Where is the confidentiality and where are the ethics?”
According to the database connected to Pennsylvania's state department, LePera still has an active license to practice psychology in Philadelphia, set to expire in late 2021.
LePera’s platform hasn’t diminished as a result of the pushback from Chawla and others, and detractors say the tone of her content remains largely unchanged. But they nonetheless remain confident about the future of Instagram as a psychoeducational platform.
“What is unique about mental health professionals speaking on social media platforms is that we cannot know who is consuming our content;” Friedman said. “Therefore, we have to be especially mindful and cautious about our language and how we present information that could be harmful to those who are listening. Our engagement in social media provides us the opportunity to maintain our ethical obligations to the populations we serve.”
LePera, for her part, has something to look forward to: her debut book, How to Do the Work, slated to come out in March 2021.
“In 2020, your community gives you every single opportunity you ever have,” LePera wrote in a post announcing her deal with HarperCollins imprint Harper Wave. “I’m aware that the reason I got a book deal is not because I’m a gifted writer. It’s because of you… My intention is that this book shows you your true self, helps to end generational trauma cycles, [and] allows you to become the conscious creator of your life. The power I know each of you have. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you #selfhealers.”
Follow Katie Way on Twitter.