When Fernando discovered the videos of YouTube influencer Leo Gura in 2015, he was just 17 years old.
At the time, he was struggling with depression and anxiety, and he’d turned to the internet for solutions. When he saw one of Gura’s videos titled “How to stop caring what people think about you,” he clicked on it without hesitation.
[Content Warning: This article contains discussion of suicide and self-harm.]
“I thought it was very informative and insightful,” says Fernando, now a 24-year-old insurance worker based in New York. (Input is withholding the last names of interviewees to protect their privacy.) “He seemed to understand what the root problems are with anxiety and depression, even though he isn’t a psychologist. I guess I kind of took his word for it.”
“The more I watched Leo, the more toxic I became.”
Fernando began to absorb — and often parrot — Gura’s teachings. He attacked and admonished people who he didn’t feel were as enlightened as him or Gura. He believed, like many other followers, that Gura had achieved a level of consciousness that surpassed all other spiritual teachers. He even began to lecture family members and college peers about the healing powers of psychedelic drugs, which Gura used and endorsed.
“I found myself mimicking that behavior and turned into a bit of an asshole. The more I watched Leo, the more toxic I became,” admits Fernando, who stopped consuming Gura’s videos in 2019, after his family and friends expressed concern and he reconsidered his stance. “I wish it was as simple as just forgetting about it, but at least two people have committed suicide. Something’s going wrong.”
Fernando is a former member of Actualized.org, a forum-based community built around the YouTube channel of Gura, a bald vlogger with more than one million followers and 100 million views. On LinkedIn, Gura lists his location as Las Vegas and says he graduated from University of California Irvine with a B.A. in philosophy in 2007. Early videos on his YouTube channel, launched in early 2012, include “How To Make A Girl Squirt - Give Your Girl An Explosive Orgasm.”
Today, Gura considers himself a spiritual guru. In between bragging about his enlightened state and claiming superiority over his followers, he promotes the use of hallucinogens to his adherents, who are largely disenfranchised young men. In addition to his YouTube channel, Gura has a self-help store (“The Ultimate Life Purpose Course” goes for $249) and a Patreon.
According to former followers, there is a very dark side to all this. Threads on Actualized.org, which has 25,000 members, reference alleged suicides by users Soonhei, Vanish, and WaveTheOcean between 2018 and January 2022. Before all three ceased posting, they shared alarming posts about physical death being an exploration of consciousness. Gura has acknowledged the three purported deaths in posts on the forum.
All this has left former members extremely concerned. Jordan, a 23-year-old design engineer and ex-follower of Gura’s who is from the South, believes the Actualized.org community has spiraled out of control, in part because of the vulnerable young men it attracts. “Suicidal ideation leads you to spiritual matters,” he says. “Conveniently, Leo Gura is one of the first people who shows up if you search for that stuff.”
Jordan tells Input that he found Gura’s videos while struggling with frequent panic attacks so severe that he was unable to keep down food. He says that posters on the Actualized forum teach people that such disorders are a sign of spiritual enlightenment. “Leo Gura’s community referred to the attacks as some sort of awakening,” he says.
“He’s certainly said enough to undermine people’s idea of this reality, and if you’re vulnerable to that, it’s a dangerous line of thinking.”
Gura’s teachings about death are particularly dangerous, according to those who’ve broken from the flock. “He’s made videos where he says physical death allows you to wake up to your true nature,” says Fernando. He points to one of Gura’s posts in particular: “People seem to enjoy playing FPSes [first-person shooters], which always ends with a bullet in the head and a respawn. Maybe God enjoys FPSes too? 😉”
Fernando calls Gura’s teachings “irresponsible”: “He’s trying to help followers who are already thinking about suicide by telling them death isn’t such a bad thing.” Gura’s followers have made more than 20,000 posts on Actualized.org about suicide and death; they often contain nihilistic statements about the futility of life and express the posters’ desire to die.
Other psychonaut influencers have been alarmed by what they’ve seen. “He’s certainly said enough to undermine people’s idea of this reality, and if you’re vulnerable to that, it’s a dangerous line of thinking,” says Rob, a 44-year-old from Switzerland who posts videos about psychedelic drugs and consciousness on his YouTube channel, Adeptus Psychonautica.
In his videos, Rob has publicly expressed concerns about Gura’s teachings and cult-like following. “Now he’s started throwing in caveats that you shouldn’t harm your physical body, and his followers quote that to give him a free pass,” Rob says. “But after six years of telling everyone to check out of this realm, is that really enough?”
Former followers of Gura believe that the ideas he espouses are particularly dangerous because of the drugs in the mix. Gura encourages the use of 5-MeO-DMT, a potent psychedelic drug, which he claims to take frequently and even in 30-day continuous stretches. “He was telling people that the more they took these drugs,” Fernando says, “the better their life would be overall.”
Although Rob admits that, as a psychonaut, he has taken hallucinogenic drugs in much the same way that Gura has claimed to, he still thinks Gura’s presentation of the lifestyle is reckless. He worries that the promises Gura makes about psychedelics — that they will deliver powers of omniscience, enlightenment, healing, and even telekinesis — could drive people to take these substances in an irresponsible way.
“I’d imagine if you're some 21-year-old kid suffering from depression, feeling completely alienated and vulnerable, it could be tempting to go overboard,” Rob says.
“I could definitely see this turning into a full-blown cult.”
It’s something that’s worried Jordan, too. “It’s dangerous,” he says. “Imagine telling an 18-year-old with mental health problems who’s just come off a DMT or ayahuasca trip that the self is an illusion and nothing is real.” He thinks the situation might be worse than people realize. “There’s literally people who say explicitly in their forum posts that they’re going to kill themselves, and then they just stop posting. They vanish,” he says. “Hopefully they’re okay and they just found some other path, but you never know.”
Although forum users have approached Gura about these issues multiple times, he continues to preach the idea that death and suicide are “imaginary” and that he is not responsible for users taking their own lives. “No amount [of] suicide threats are going to change the truth,” he wrote on February 11. “You are not going to fear-monger me out of speaking truth.” Input reached out to Gura multiple times via an online contact form, but he did not respond.
Although Rob doesn’t believe Gura is intentionally forming a cult, he’s still concerned. “It’s at the point where the behavior emerging from Actualized.org is completely nuts, and [Gura is] not necessarily in control of it,” he says. “I could definitely see this turning into a full-blown cult.”
Fernando, meanwhile, just wants to move on — but he worries about Gura’s remaining followers. He wants the members of the Actualized forum to know that life outside of this group exists. “It doesn’t look like Leo and his community are going to stop anytime soon,” he says. “I hope that by saying these things, I can protect other people who are listening to him.”
If you or someone you love is struggling with thoughts of suicide or self-harm, there is help available. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline operates 24/7 and can be reached at 1-800-273-8255. You can also text the Crisis Text Line at 741741.