Evan Wagoner-Lynch is a squirrel with a soothing, East Coast drawl — or rather he is on some days. He dons a furry gray hand puppet, aptly named Squirrel, and takes audiences on a walk through old-growth forests on Orcas Island, all while talking about difficult emotions like anxiety or loneliness and how to manage them. 

@squirrel_dialogues

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♬ original sound – Squirrel

He calls it a form of “self-therapy,” a creative performance that he brings to social media — and TikTok audiences love it. His account @squirrel_dialogues has over 150,000 followers and a million likes. The compassionate dialogues resonate with Gen-Z audiences, who leave comments like, “Thank you for being there Mr. Squirrel.” 

Other users open up about their own mental health struggles, sharing, “One major thing I learned this year is to let myself feel the emotions I’m feeling and not suppress them. Hard to do but it’s helped me get better.”  

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

Wagoner-Lynch is a 39-year-old artist and writer with a long list of work. He used to perform in street theater, flash mobs and what he calls “prankster art” in San Francisco, where he lived. In his 30s, he found himself struggling to find more work opportunities and keep up with the cost of living. 

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“And I had not at that point dealt with any of my mental health problems,” said Wagoner-Lynch. “They were just sort of bubbling under the surface.” 

He moved to Washington state in 2015 and started working on managing his anxiety and depression, reading books about trauma, healing and mental health. He cites inspiration from the works 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 that.   

“I began to realize that I was actually a person living with the effects of childhood trauma,” Wagoner-Lynch said. “That 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 Squirrel on YouTube. A little over a year later, Squirrel Dialogues took off on TikTok. 

Wagoner-Lynch reflects on his experience with his own mental health and the intersection with humor, art and making healing content for others. This conversation has been edited lightly for length and clarity. 

The Seattle Times: Tell me more about Squirrel Dialogues. You mention what got you started on your mental health journey but when did the puppet become part of this work? 

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Wagoner-Lynch: I had this really strong desire to talk about what I was going through and what I was learning and to share it with people, because I suspected that a lot of people are struggling with the same stuff. Awareness is really step one in healing and I had spent 35 years unaware and just sort of suffering without knowing why. I was really hesitant to share art about it, because I’m sort of conditioned not to talk about my emotions. 

But I’ve kind of hit a wall where I couldn’t say any more without being more open. And my fears about that were no longer as strong as my increasing desire to share. 

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I remembered that I had picked up some toys like a puppet and a kid’s stuffed animal at a Goodwill a couple years ago just on a whim. I’m very inspired by Mr. Rogers. So I had this idea cooking 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 I was just opening his little mouth, like ‘What would he sound like?’ And this sort of like New York/Boston accent came out. 

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

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The short answer is I think Squirrel resonates deeply with people, particularly younger folks. I think my audience is more Gen Z. They’re high school-aged or college-aged or early 20s, mostly women. People tell me specifically how Squirrel has helped them.

There’s the hook that he’s this sort of silly, cute puppet. He has a funny voice. So that draws people in but then I think people really become fans of him. Like a lot of people will say “I feel safe” for the videos, which really astounded me when I first heard that. I think it makes sense, you know, it’s a children’s toy. He sounds like this kind, older person. And what I’m trying to do with him is model radical compassion, radical nonjudgement, unconditional positive regard.

Where do you see this going in 2022? Any goals that you have going into this next year? 

I’ve been thinking about that quite a lot, because I do want to keep growing the project but I want to do it very intentionally. I try to stay away from being directive or certainly from anything that would sound like therapy since I’m not a therapist.

I’m also steering clear of sponsorships. From a justice perspective, I think I’m very troubled by any type of mental health resource that costs money. It becomes part of the problem, the folks who need support most acutely have the least resource oftentimes. 

So I have to figure out sustainability and growth. I’ve applied to a couple grants, I’m trying to find another model besides the commercial model.

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What I have learned through TikTok is there is a massive need for this type of healing content or for content that helps people with hopelessness or loneliness, that offers a sense of safety. That’s been really eye-opening for me. It’s given me a much more visceral sense of what folks are struggling with — particularly, like, people in their teens, 20s, 30s.

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

We’d like to hear from you.

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

Get in touch with us at mentalhealth@seattletimes.com.