A man from Orcas Island uses a squirrel puppet to talk about mental health. The public loves

Evan Wagoner-Lynch is a squirrel with a calming drawl from the East Coast – or rather he is on some days. He dons a gray-haired puppet, aptly named Squirrel, and takes the audience on a walk through the ancient forests of Orcas Island, all the while talking about difficult emotions like anxiety or loneliness and how to deal with them.

He calls it a form of “self-therapy,” a creative performance he brings to social media – and TikTok audiences love it. His @squirrel_dialogues account has over 150,000 subscribers and one million likes. tCompassionate dialogues resonate with Gen Z audiences, who leave comments such as “Thanks for being here, Mr. Squirrel.”

Other users are opening up about their own mental health issues, sharing, “One important thing that I have learned this year is to let myself feel the emotions that I am feeling and not to suppress them. Hard to do, but it helped me get better.

The Mental Health Project is a Seattle Times initiative focused on coverage of mental and behavioral health issues. It is funded by Ballmer Group, a national organization focused on the economic mobility of children and families. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over the work produced by this team.

Wagoner-Lynch is a 39-year-old artist and writer with a long list of works. He performed in street theater, flash mobs, and what he calls “joke art” in San Francisco, where he lived. In his thirties, he struggled to find more work opportunities and keep up with the cost of living.

“And I hadn’t treated any of my mental health issues at that point,” Wagoner-Lynch said. “They were bubbling just below the surface.”

He moved to Washington State in 2015 and began working on managing his anxiety and depression, reading books on trauma, healing, and mental health. He cites inspiration from the work of Brené Brown who writes on vulnerability, Gabor Maté, a physician who writes on chronic stress and addiction, and Thích Nhất Hạnh’s Buddhist teachings on mindfulness. His Squirrel videos reflect this.

“I began to realize that I was actually a person living with the effects of childhood trauma., ” said Wagoner-Lynch. “It was a big turning point in my life.”

It wasn’t until 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic began, that Wagoner-Lynch posted his first video as a squirrel on YouTube. A little over a year later, Squirrel Dialogues took off on TikTok.

Wagoner-Lynch reflects on her experience with her own sanity and the intersection with humor, art, and creating healing content for others. This conversation has been edited slightly for length and clarity.

The Seattle Times: Tell me more about Squirrel Dialogues. You mention what started you on your mental health journey, but when did puppetry become part of that job?

Wagoner-Lynch: I had this very strong desire to talk about what I was going through and what I was learning and sharing it with people, because I suspected that a lot of people were struggling with the same thing. Awareness is really the first step to healing and I have spent 35 years in the dark and in some sort of pain not knowing why. I was really hesitant to share art on this, because I’m kind of conditioned not to talk about my emotions.

But I kind of hit a wall where I couldn’t say more without being more open. And my fears about it weren’t as strong as my growing desire to share.

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I remembered that I picked up toys like a puppet and a kid’s stuffed animal from a Goodwill store a few years ago on a whim. I am very inspired by Mr. Rogers. So I had this idea to cook for about four or five years of some sort of Mr. Rogers type show that would be for adults.

So in April 2020, I picked up the squirrel puppet and just opened its little mouth, like ‘How’s it going to sound?’ And that kind of New York/The Boston accent is out.

What kinds of responses do you get from people? Why do you think Squirrel found such an audience?

The short answer is, I think Squirrel resonates deeply with people, especially younger ones. I think my audience is mostly Gen Z. They’re high school or college or early twenties, mostly women. People tell me precisely how Squirrel has helped them.

There’s the hook that he’s that kind of silly, cute puppet. He has a funny voice. So he attracts people, but I think people really become fans of him. As many people will say “I feel safe” for videos, which really amazed me when I first heard that. I think it makes sense, you know, it’s a kid’s toy. He looks like this kind, old person. And what I’m trying to do with him is a model of radical compassion, radical non-judgment, unconditional positive gaze.

Where do you see it going in 2022? Do you have goals for next year?

I have thought about it a lot, because I want to continue to develop the project but I want to do it very intentionally. I try to stay away from directive or certainly anything that might sound like therapy since I’m not a therapist.

I also avoid referrals. From a justice standpoint, I think I’m very confused by any kind of mental health resource that costs money. It becomes part of the problem, the people who need support the most often have the least resources.

So I have to understand sustainability and growth. I applied for a few grants, I am trying to find another model besides the business model.

What I learned from TikTok is that there is a massive need for this type of healing content or content that helps people who are desperate or lonely, that provides a sense of security. It really opened my eyes. It gave me a much more visceral idea of ​​what people struggle with, especially, Like, teenagers, 20, 30 years old.

It’s a combination of very heartwarming and encouraging for me as an artist, and very heartbreaking as a human being to see the extent of suffering and the intensity of things like loneliness.

We would love to hear from you.

The Mental Health Project team is listening. We’d love to know what questions you have about mental health and what stories you would suggest we cover.

Contact us at mentalhealth@seattletimes.com.

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