The BetterHelp controversy brought attention to the complexities surrounding evolving mental health services in the digital age. At its core, the controversy involves allegations of mishandling private mental health information for advertising, raising questions about consumer protection, privacy promises, and the ethical responsibilities of mental health professionals providing online counseling services.

In this comprehensive examination by Business2Community, you’ll be presented with a researched account of the BetterHelp scandal. From the initial allegations to the Federal Trade Commission’s proposed settlement, we’re going to unpack the allegations and the steps taken by BetterHelp to address these concerns.

BetterHelp Controversy – Key Facts

  • Allegations arose of BetterHelp sharing clients’ confidential data, including mental health information, for advertising purposes.
  • High-profile YouTubers like Philip DeFranco and Boogie2988 publicly objected to BetterHelp’s practices, leading to a temporary halt in their sponsorships.
  • Ultimately, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) imposed a ban on BetterHelp in 2023 for its data-sharing practices.

The Story of the BetterHelp Controversy

The BetterHelp controversy centers on allegations that the online counseling service engaged in misleading marketing practices by not clearly disclosing its use of non-licensed therapists and its privacy policy regarding the sharing of client data. This incident sparked widespread debate on the ethics of online therapy services and their obligation to ensure transparency and trust with users.

Memeology 101 Videos and YouTube Creators

The controversy surrounding BetterHelp began to gain traction with the release of a video series starting September 27, 2018 by the channel Memeology 101.

These videos investigated the online therapy platform’s sponsorship deals on YouTube, raising questions about the ethical aspects of BetterHelp’s marketing practices and their transparency.

YouTube creators, known for their influential platforms, had been increasingly accepting sponsorships from BetterHelp, promoting the app as a resource for those struggling with mental health issues. However, skepticism arose as discrepancies between the services advertised by YouTubers and the terms of service provided by BetterHelp came to light.

The terms did not guarantee the provision of licensed professionals, placing the onus of verifying a counselor’s qualifications on the user.

According to the terms of service from BetterHelp’s website from 2018:

We do not control the quality of the Counselor Services and we do not determine whether any Counselor is qualified to provide any specific service as well as whether a Counselor is categorized correctly or matched correctly to you.

This revelation sparked a backlash within the YouTube community and among its viewers, leading to a broader discussion on the authenticity and ethics of such sponsorships. The controversy also brought to light additional criticisms directed at the app’s operation, including concerns over pricing and unresponsive therapists.

CEO of BetterHelp’s Response

In early October 2018, BetterHelp’s CEO Alon Matas defended the company’s practices on Reddit, stating that he doesn’t have “any response to the video because it’s plainly bizarre”. In his post, he also promised to donate $500 to charity if a single counselor on the platform was discovered not to be a qualified professional.

alon matas betterhelp reddit response

On October 8, 2018, Matas responded again with a statement on Medium, defending the company’s policies and addressing some accusations.

Matas stated that BetterHelp stood by its mission to provide accessible and affordable therapy for those in need, and addressed concerns about therapist qualifications and background checks. He claimed that BetterHelp had rigorous vetting processes for therapists and prioritized member privacy and security.

“Our model is simple: Members pay a fee to get counseling; counselors are paid to provide counseling. We are in the counseling business, not in the data business,” he noted in the post

Alon Matas also emphasized the company’s dedication to helping people and addressing concerns directly, highlighting their commitment to transparency and improvement.

YouTubers DeFranco and Boogie2988 Continue the Controversy

As a result of the controversy, several professional YouTubers who had previously promoted BetterHelp publicly distanced themselves from the platform and its practices. On October 15, 2018, one such YouTube star, Philip DeFranco, released a statement on Twitter, that has since been taken down, saying he was suspending his sponsorship while his team investigated BetterHelp’s policies.

And even though I trust and believe them, until I do that and they reword their TOS, which they say they will, I’ll be putting BH sponsor spots on a temp hold.

Similarly, YouTuber Boogie2988 also made a video addressing the controversy and expressing his regret for promoting BetterHelp.

He stated that he was initially attracted to the idea of providing affordable therapy to those in need but upon further examination, realized the potential negative impact of their business model:

I recommended it to viewers after that and continued to use it. Now that some people think it’s shady I’ll gladly back off until its proven otherwise.

These public statements from popular YouTubers further fueled the controversy surrounding BetterHelp and brought attention to the potential dangers of promoting and endorsing products without thorough research and consideration.

Psychologists Enter the Debate on BetterHelp

Psychologists on YouTube also began to voice their opinions, navigating the complex intersection of mental health advocacy and online counseling. On October 16, 2018, YouTuber Dr. Allison expressed concerns from a professional standpoint, highlighting a critical examination of the relationship between mental health services and digital platforms.

She articulated the nuanced differences between traditional therapy and the services offered by BetterHelp, questioning the adequacy and ethics of substituting face-to-face counseling with an online model. Traditional therapy involves thorough assessment, diagnosis, goal setting, and guidance from licensed professionals, unlike the limited services offered by BetterHelp.

She raised ethical questions about the substitution of such deep, nuanced care with BetterHelp’s more accessible, yet arguably superficial, alternative. The essence of her concerns lay not just in the comparison of cost or format but in the underlying ethics and implications for client well-being.

Travis Scott’s Post-Astroworld Statement on Partnering with BetterHelp

In the wake of the tragic events at Astroworld Festival in November 2021, where a crowd surge led to numerous injuries and fatalities, Travis Scott announced a partnership with BetterHelp. Scott was offering free therapy sessions to attendees coping with the aftermath of the incident.

Scott’s announcement reignited the debate around BetterHelp’s services and concerns regarding past controversies such as data sharing with companies like Facebook, and criticisms from therapists about low pay and restrictive policies.

Scott was also accused of exploiting the tragedy with a BetterHelp partnership. Many criticized Scott for using a serious topic like mental health as a means to deflect criticism and avoid taking accountability for his role in the tragedy.

Questions remained about the quality of care provided by text-based therapy and the potential impact of targeted advertising on vulnerable individuals seeking mental health support.

The 2023 FTC Proposed Ban

On March 2, 2023, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced action against BetterHelp for deceiving consumers by sharing their sensitive health data, including information about mental health struggles, for advertising purposes. Despite promising privacy, BetterHelp shared consumers’ data with third parties like Facebook, Snapchat, Criteo, and Pinterest for targeted advertising.

As a result, BetterHelp was ordered to pay $7.8 million to consumers and is now prohibited from sharing personal information with certain third parties for advertising. The company’s failure to protect consumer data and obtain affirmative consent before disclosing it led to the proposed order.

FTC ban betterhelp

The proposed order mandated BetterHelp to obtain express consent before sharing consumers’ health data, implement a comprehensive privacy program, instruct third parties to delete consumer data, and limit data retention.

This marked the first instance where the FTC has returned funds to consumers whose health data was compromised, underscoring the severity of BetterHelp’s actions and the need for stricter regulations on data-sharing practices. The FTC’s decision emphasized the crucial importance of safeguarding sensitive health information and holding companies accountable for deceptive practices.

Discussion Continues Regarding BetterHelp’s Impact on Psychotherapy

Following the FTC’s ban, concerns about BetterHelp’s practices and their implications for the field of psychotherapy have continued.

Clinical psychologist Dr. Robert Cohen voiced his apprehension about the platform’s potential to undermine the psychotherapy profession. He pointed out that the marriage of technology and therapy introduces unresolved conflicts between the established science and the hands-on practice of psychotherapy, potentially destabilizing the profession.

Despite BetterHelp’s aggressive marketing campaigns touting accessibility and affordability, doubts remain concerning the service’s effectiveness and suitability for everyone.

betterhelp ad

Cohen’s personal encounters with BetterHelp, from the dual perspectives of a client and a therapist, uncovered issues regarding the matching of therapists to clients, the aptness of the treatments provided, and the platform’s tendency to promote brief, perhaps surface-level, therapeutic interactions.

Additionally, the ease with which therapists can join the platform, with minimal vetting for clinical acumen, and a compensation structure that might prioritize volume over the quality of care, raised questions about the caliber of therapy being offered. It should also be noted that BetterHelp’s pricing is not exactly affordable by any sense of the word, though it is sometimes cheaper than in-person therapy.

The Consequences of the BetterHelp Controversy

The BetterHelp controversy has had widespread ramifications, impacting various stakeholders associated with the online therapy platform. For BetterHelp, the scrutiny began with accusations of not maintaining patient privacy, failing to ensure that mental health care remained private, and inadequate safeguarding of sensitive data.

The public scrutiny also extended to the YouTube community that had endorsed the platform, thereby affecting the credibility and trustworthiness of influencer marketing. This led to a backlash on social media. For collaborators and endorsers like YouTubers and influencers who once championed BetterHelp, the controversy prompted a reevaluation of partnerships, with some distancing themselves to maintain their credibility.

Some users expressed loss of trust in the platform’s commitment to mental health support and privacy practices, which is critical for services demanding explicit consent for sharing personal information.

However, despite the negative publicity, BetterHelp’s CEO, Alon Matas, noted in his 2018 response on Medium that the controversy had paradoxically led to an increase in sign-ups. This phenomenon can be attributed to heightened brand visibility and perhaps the public’s nuanced understanding of the criticisms.

In the same response, Matas also emphasized the company’s commitment to refining their operational practices, including an update to their privacy policy. These adjustments were indicative of BetterHelp’s efforts to rectify the issues raised and rebuild trust with their user base.

This episode not only questioned the reliability of endorsements by internet celebrities but also underscored the necessity for influencers to conduct thorough research before aligning with brands, highlighting a shift towards greater accountability in influencer marketing.

Even after the company updated its privacy policy, BetterHelp faced scrutiny from regulatory bodies leading to the FTC’s settlement, mandating partial refunds to affected consumers and stricter privacy practices moving forward.

What Can We Learn From the BetterHelp Controversy?

The BetterHelp controversy unfolded as a multi-dimensional saga with implications for various stakeholders. It sparked a needed discussion on ethical marketing, influencer accountability, data privacy, and the necessity for regulatory oversight in the rapidly evolving digital space. The controversy, serving as a cautionary tale, highlights the complexity of navigating ethics, privacy, and trust in the digital age.

The controversy brings to the forefront the crucial aspects of how mental health assistance online services such as BetterHelp manage to remain private while offering support. Despite claims of appropriate safeguards to keep information private, the company faced scrutiny from both users and the Better Business Bureau.

This incident highlights the importance for businesses, particularly those like Pride Counseling and Teen Counseling which are affiliated with BetterHelp and connects users with professionals holding a master’s degree in psychology or counseling, to make informed decisions regarding privacy policies.

The lessons derived from the BetterHelp situation urge businesses in the digital health sphere, and indeed any business that handles customer data, to place a high priority on ethical conduct, ensuring user privacy is guarded as if it were their own, thereby fostering a space where individuals feel secure seeking help or sharing data.

This narrative not only serves as a roadmap for BetterHelp but also sets a bar for all businesses to evaluate and fortify their privacy practices and crisis management strategies, ensuring clients can safely access the care they need without compromising their privacy.

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