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Illustration by Cathryn Virginia
mind

Everyone's a #SelfHealer: How 'Holistic Psychology' Took Instagram by Storm

Dr. Nicole LePera preaches empowerment and agency with regard to mental health and self-care... alongside strident messaging about rejecting established science and relying on yourself instead.
15 April 2020, 11:33pm

A typical Holistic Psychologist post has a few ingredients: a colorful graphic (think teal, robin’s egg, mauve, a gentle coral) featuring a small illustration or chart, accompanied by a caption, usually a couple hundred words long, that elaborates on the central topic. LePera grounds her advice in her own experience as a mental health practitioner, and tilts towards upending conventional wisdom. “Shifting the paradigm,” “creating new environments,” unlearning and relearning are all core thematic elements of her Insta-ouvre. But her primary directive for her nearly two million followers is learning to “self-heal.”

So, what does a self-healer do? According to LePera’s feed (LePera declined an interview request for this piece), self-healers recognize codependency, “parent their inner child,” discover how to quiet the ego, and address trauma in a way that incorporates lifestyle changes and eschews the limitations of the diagnosis-oriented establishment. According to posts on LePera’s feed, self-healers also are meant to treat established psychological principles and treatments—like talk therapy, the DSM-5, and the mere act of diagnosing mental health issues—with a kind of new-age skepticism.

The narrative self-healing offers—that we already have all of the tools we need inside of us already, we just need a little guidance on how to use them—can be empowering and affirming. It’s easy to understand why the concept of self-healing appeals in the times we live in: medical costs are at an all time high; insurance covers fewer treatments than ever; mental health is still treated by the medical establishment as a parenthetical rather than a central facet of well-being; and wellness companies that slyly encourage self-treating over seeking the help of established professionals are absolutely everywhere. Instagram’s #selfhealers movement aims to further the idea that good mental health begins, and maybe even ends, with the will of the individual, countering the conventional messaging around mental health and wellness. It’s a purpose made explicit from its inception by founder Nicole LePera, a registered psychologist previously practicing out of Philadelphia, PA, who posts as @the.holistic.psychologist.

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LePera's posts about mental health sometimes characterize mental health management as manageable by personal choices. Screenshot via Instagram.

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A since-deleted post touted quack science about "EMF pollution." Screenshot via Instagram.

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Screenshot via Instagram.

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LePera's posts often flatten mental health issues. Screenshot via Instagram.

LePera’s teachings and the #selfhealers movement at large present an alternative for people who feel let down by traditional systems of mental health management; whether that’s due to inaccessibility (according to data gathered by Mental Health America in its 2020 Access to Care survey, 22.3% of all adults with a mental illness reported that they were not able to receive the treatment they needed, a stat that hasn’t declined since 2011), or another alienating factor like a lack of concrete results, sheer fatigue, or some combination of these obstacles. And, apparently, lots of people are seeking such solace online: LePera herself has amassed more than 2 million followers since July 2018, and the #selfhealers tag adorns more than 160,000 posts as of April 2020.

“I am very invested in the #selfhealers community. I want everyone to know it is possible to heal,” Ally, 32, told VICE via email. “I am the living, breathing, self-actualizing proof that what [LePera] teaches works.” Ally first followed LePera’s account when the psychologist’s posts began to appear in her Discover feed on Instagram, and described the impact on her life as immediate and astronomical. After reading a post about self-betrayal, Ally said she finally recognized her own inability to keep commitments to herself as a common struggle, rather than a deep personal flaw.

“I was seeing everyone else in my life succeed, and I felt stuck and overwhelmed and hopeless,” Ally wrote. “But this woman I had never met and only recently discovered, and her Instagram account, had become my beacon of light. I started to believe that healing could be within my reach.” She even credits following LePera’s teachings with helping her implement lifestyle changes to manage her autoimmune disease. “I wouldn't be this person I am today without her,” she wrote.

Liberty Shea, a fan of LePera’s who lives in Portland, Oregon, stopped seeing her last therapist when she felt the relationship between them “plateaued,” and has found content from @the.holistic.psychologist to be more than sufficient for filling that role.

“I like that the memes that she makes are really clear and concise,” Shea told VICE. “They touch on the overall human experience that we all feel. And then, she follows that up with really good anecdotes and actionable items.” Shea called those actionable items “the core of self-healing.” “It’s not that I’m doing all of them every day, but I know that those tools are there for me when I’m ready to work on one specific thing in my life.”

Results like Ally’s are exactly the kind that other spiritual guides and thought leaders who post under the #selfhealers tag hope their followers will achieve. Sah D’Simone, a spiritual instructor, meditation coach, and proponent of self-healing, told VICE that he guides his students through mending their psychological wounds by empowering them, making them aware of their own intrinsic resources. “Everyone's a self-healer, it's undeniably a quality that we have,” D’Simone said. “I mean, look at your body. When you get cut. It heals itself. At the end of the day, your mind and body are supporting you towards your heart.”

D’Simone said he was inspired to spread the word about self-healing after taking a holistic approach to his own mental health, including struggles with addiction. He also said he takes pains to ensure that his Instagram followers know the work his methods require extends beyond the internet. “You can’t just follow the hashtag, you can’t just read the Instagram memes and think that that's enough, because it's not.”

LePera has said that she, too, seeks to provide her Instagram followers with more than just memes. “I’m very connected to my community,” she told Forbes in January. “I spend a ton of time in the comments and the DMs, and that is what helps me create [things] that might bring the most value.” LePera also offers free, downloadable resources like her “Future Self Journal,” produces YouTube videos, a “Healing Texts” service supported by a “conversation platform” called Community, and launched the Selfhealers Circle, an online community that members pay either $24/month or $264/year to join (although enrollment is currently closed).

But what sets LePera’s account apart from the crowd—that is, apart from the majority of mental health resources offered by accredited mental healthcare professionals—is her choice to specifically take aim at the mental health establishment. @the.holistic.psychologist regularly posts images and captions explicitly rejecting the tools of traditional psychotherapy, such as one post in which she calls the current era “the dark ages of psychology,” one where she rejects the idea that talk therapy can help people deal with trauma, and another in which she questions the value of the DSM and mental health diagnoses in general.

Marla Deibler, a cognitive-behavioral therapist and licensed psychologist who serves as the executive director of the Center for Emotional Health of Greater Philadelphia, said that these critiques can be dangerous, especially when the alternative presented is unscientific in nature. “From where I am in the field, my colleagues and I feel very good about what we do, and we practice scientifically validated treatment protocols that show pretty good efficacy in terms of helping people improve their lives when they’re suffering,” Deibler told VICE.

LePera has strangely threaded junk science into her self-healing messaging, promoting the belief that EMF “pollution” negatively impacts the brain (it doesn’t) and comparing alcohol and drug addiction to “addiction” to neurotransmitters like dopamine (which doesn’t exist). After she heard excerpts from @the.holistic.psychologist posts, Deibler told VICE other topics LePera frequently mentions were on the “outskirts of evidence-based medicine.”

These detours into unverified theory include the storage of trauma in the body, a concept linked to the oft-debunked “repressed memory” phenomenon (trauma treatment distinct from mental health treatment is an emergent field, but still undertaken under supervision of professionals); polyvagal theory, introduced in the 90s, which ties the automatic nervous system to the fight or flight response, still lacks direct evidence, and has been challenged on its premises; and psychoneuroimmunology, the study of the impact of stress on the immune system and vice versa, which is theoretically robust but still lacks significant evidence as a clinical tool.

“It sounds as though her language is not coming from a place of science,” she said. “And I don’t know that her experiences are necessarily reflective of our field. That’s certainly not reflective of my experience of our field, for sure.”

The psychologist called LePera’s rhetoric “dangerous” and told VICE it made her “sad” to hear about people turning away from therapy in favor of LePera’s work. “It’s irresponsible for licensed practitioners to put out there information that is not backed by science,” she said.

Although the combination of a rejection of norms and an occasional embrace of pseudoscience might trouble some, under the right circumstances, therapist Liz Earnshaw said she understands why patients choose to turn to LePera’s methods over more traditional treatment.

Earnshaw (who is also active on Instagram, and who worked alongside and remains friends with LePera) pointed to the high cost of therapy, and its subsequent inaccessibility, as one reason it is impossible to deem it a one-size-fits-all solution for anyone with mental health issues. She also said she doesn’t see LePera’s teachings as incompatible with traditional therapy or even medication.

“The self-healing thing doesn’t scare me because actually, therapy is one hour a week, the majority of healing needs to be outside of the therapy room and people need to feel empowered to do it,” she said. “Something I worried about previously is that we made therapists or medication seem like the only answer… I think opening the conversation that it’s not always therapy that is the answer, some people can’t access it, it’s not something that resonates with some people, but that you can improve your life and that it’s really up to you to decide what’s the best method for that. Is it medication? Is it exercise and eating well and reading, and doing memberships like Nicole’s? Or is it seeing a therapist?”

Whether LePera’s services cross over into the realm of teletherapy depends on how generous one is with the definition of “therapy.” The healing texts are essentially tweet-length reminders to practice self-care, nothing new in a social media hemisphere already populated by Instagram therapists, or therapists who like to use Instagram.

Direct interaction with LePera over DM or via the Selfhealers Circle could, however, veer more into Talkspace territory. The platform and its fellow mental health apps have been praised for making therapy sessions (especially cognitive behavioral therapy) more accessible, due to their lower cost and lower level of time commitment from customers, or, uh, patients.

But virtual therapy has also faced thorough criticism. These critiques have come from ex-users who found text conversations with their assigned mental health provider robotic and impersonal, or overly casual; from researchers unable to confirm how effective the apps actually are at combatting depression or even suicidal ideation; from therapists worried about creating boundary issues with the patients they speak to in-app; and from experts concerned the apps encourage overtreatment.

#Selfhealers content seems to appeal in particular to those who have prior experience with therapy, but others who do similar work exercise caution in offering their services to people who are seeking help. Spiritual instructor D’Simone is careful about which students he takes on, and said that the people he works with frequently see him in tandem with therapists or other traditional mental health practitioners. “My work at the moment that I'm in right now, it's not for people who are really asleep or who are extremely debilitated by mental illness,” he said. “It's for people who have done a generous amount of work on themselves and are ready to run.”

Some of LePera’s fans told VICE that following her has actually allowed them to dial down the amount of real-world therapeutic treatment they receive.

Ally, the 31-year-old fan, said she no longer sees a therapist. “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,” she told VICE.

28-year-old fan Raizy told VICE she’s been in therapy for six years, but following LePera’s account and writing in her future self journal on a daily basis allowed her to switch from weekly therapy sessions to just one per month. “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 wrote to VICE via email. “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.”

As empowering the prospect of seizing the means of healing might be, LePera’s teachings do have certain stark drawbacks. A therapist who uses her social media platform to promote her anti-psychotherapy-establishment movement is radical. But radical doesn’t necessarily mean better, especially when that radical therapist’s healing techniques part from the realm of actual medical science.

“Laypersons or the general population look to us as licensed professionals, as reliable guides. And it is our responsibility to provide the public with reliable, scientifically based information,” said Deibler. “I’m of the belief that if we don’t do that, we’re negligent. That’s irresponsible and unethical.”

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This article originally appeared on VICE US.