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Philip DeFranco, BetterHelp CEO speak out on YouTube’s mental health controversy

Two major voices spoke to Polygon about the community’s outcry

BetterHelp Philip DeFranco
Philip DeFranco talking about the BetterHelp controversy
Philip DeFranco/YouTube

Most people within the YouTube community thought Shane Dawson’s eight-part documentary series on Jake Paul was going to be the biggest story of October. That was before Memeology 101 released an investigation into the allegations against a company called BetterHelp and popular creator Philip DeFranco over a series of sponsorships that began popping up on YouTube.

Profiting off mental health

After Memeology 101’s videos, various creators and viewers accused DeFranco and BetterHelp of promoting a “scam app,” and profiting off mental illness. In just days, major YouTube creators began posting their own videos calling out DeFranco and BetterHelp, while others stepped away from the sponsorship altogether as suspicion mounted within the community. DeFranco announced on Twitter he was suspending BetterHelp sponsorships until his team could produce a proper investigation, including meeting with BetterHelp’s team in-person and going over accusations being thrown around YouTube. BetterHelp’s CEO, Alon Matas, issued a lengthy statement on Medium responding to allegations, calling them “false accusations.”

Despite Matas’ statement, and an extensive video from DeFranco about the subject, accusations and conversation continues to swirl. Now, both Matas and DeFranco have spoken to Polygon, separately, about the situation in an attempt to address some of the most pressing concerns and stop misinformation from continuously spreading.

“Not a Ponzi scheme”

One of the allegations specifically directed at DeFranco argues that his company, Rogue Rocket, is the sole reason BetterHelp sponsorships are appearing on YouTube. DeFranco denies the claim to Polygon. DeFranco and Rogue Rocket did connect a few YouTube creators with BetterHelp, including Boogie2988 and Shane Dawson, but other creators have formed their own partnerships with the company.

DeFranco’s Rogue Rocket first struck a deal with BetterHelp around May, according to Matas. Rogue Rocket reached out to BetterHelp to inquire about a sponsorship, but DeFranco told Polygon he initially used the app prior to their first meeting.

“I originally found out about the site from my wife because I constantly talk about that I don’t have time to do anything — whether it be the dentist or actually talk to someone about my problems,” DeFranco said. “That’s how I heard about it. After looking through it, experiencing it, I think my EP reached out to them, and then that’s how we initially set it up. They didn’t approach us.”

DeFranco was one of the first major YouTube creators that BetterHelp partnered with, according to Matas, and he represented an in to a world BetterHelp didn’t know how to connect with at the time.

“One of the first people we connected with at the time was Phil,” Matas told Polygon. “He’s someone with a big audience and a lot of people watching him now, so we thought it makes sense to work with a digital creator and not just celebrities. But it wasn’t just monetary. Phil loved the mission, he used the product pretty thoroughly, he liked what we do. We’re definitely not a company that he entered into because of monetary value. He can get much more lucrative deals than he got with us, for sure.”

Neither Matas nor DeFranco would tell Polygon exactly what the monetary value of that deal. DeFranco also wouldn’t talk about how much other YouTube creators made through sponsorships. Some creators, like Boogie2988, have publicly said they received $200 per referral, with other reports of $100 affiliate links from publishing sites also circulating. DeFranco did, however, address one of the most contentious points within the YouTube community about the controversy — his take in other YouTube creators sponsorships.

“We had our solo deal, and then based off of the success there we thought, ‘You know, let’s try and open it up and we can bring in a few people here,’” DeFranco said. “I think I even mentioned in the video, it was a success on all fronts. It was a service that aims to do good provide good to people that we were presenting it to, that we could also benefit from. With certain people like Shane [Dawson]. He was complaining that he’s having a hard time getting sponsors, and so I was like, ‘Oh, well this has been such a win for us because it’s kind of everyone can win.’ And so I reached out to him, and we connected from there. And like I said, in that video we provided him numbers, we got paid out.

“So that was kind of the mindset of this could be a good thing for even more people.”

DeFranco’s Rogue Rocket did get a cut from the creators he worked with to get BetterHelp sponsorship deals, but DeFranco also made it clear that not everyone with a BetterHelp sponsorship video went through Rogue Rocket. Creators like Dawson and Boogie2988, who DeFranco did connect with BetterHelp, would have given Rogue Rocket a cut of their deal. This isn’t too surprising. Rogue Rocket is a company, and DeFranco is effectively acting like a middleman.

“It’s like any other kind of middleman work,” DeFranco said. “As far as the specific numbers that wouldn’t feel comfortable [giving that out] because that’s business relationships with several YouTubers. As far as Boogie, he has an ongoing relationship with an agency. I have a friend who works there, so I reached out to him and said, ‘If you have anybody who you think would be a good fit for this, reach out to me. I can go get them set up for you, and we’ll handle the numbers and everything.’

“It seemed like it was kind of nice, convenient thing where we’d be able to enable other people to kind of come in on this thing that has, up until really last week, been amazing.”

Now, everything has changed. DeFranco is visiting BetterHelp’s office to address some of the most pressing questions brought up by some of YouTube’s most popular creators in recent videos, including PewDiePie and Keemstar. Concerns over unfair pricing, questionable terms of service legalese and actors hired for paid reviews on BetterHelp’s site are all areas that DeFranco and his team plan to investigate. DeFranco said he understands why the community is upset, and wants to address those feelings.

“We’re talking about a situation where I think there’s some people that genuinely think that people with mental illness are being preyed on,” DeFranco said. “If you kind of just heard that, you’d be angry.”

Investigating BetterHelp

The BetterHelp controversy didn’t just come as a shock to DeFranco — Matas didn’t see it coming, or understand the situation, either.

In his Medium post, Matas addressed customer complaints and concerns about unfair pricing, and legalese in the company’s terms of service that originally stated not all counselors are ensured as “qualified to provide any specific service.” He provided a few more details to Polygon, however, about how the company vets counselors, its payment system and BetterHelp’s relationship with YouTube creators.

(Polygon asked Matas for documentation to prove specific numbers, but as of publication, the CEO had yet provide anything.)

Therapists are heavily vetted, according to Matas, comparing the process to state regulations enforced for teachers.

“Only about 15 percent of therapists who apply to work with us work at BetterHelp,” Matas told Polygon. “We don’t accept interns, either. Even if they are licensed to provide therapy, if they still need supervision, we will not accept them. All therapists of lease a 2000 clinical hours with three years of experience.”

There are 12 people dedicated to verifying these claims, according to Matas. These 12 people work in different areas of verification, but they go over documents that therapists scan and upload to the site when applying for a gig with BetterHelp.

“We could not do even one percent of what people have accused us of doing,” Matas said. “Not because it wouldn’t be good for the user or because someone will write something crazy about it, but because it’s illegal to do that and we will not do anything illegal.”

That includes working within state regulations for each therapist. Complaints from therapists who worked with BetterHelp online more than a year ago appeared on Reddit, calling out the company for allowing therapists to work with patients in different states, which at the time was frowned upon. Therapists also complained they didn’t have access to patients files, which could become harmful for patients dealing with suicidal thoughts and ideation.

“If that were true, it would be completely unethical,” Matas said. “Ultimately, that’s completely false.”

One area that Matas did speak bluntly about were allegations that therapists weren’t showing up to appointments with clients. In a video last year, YouTube creator Deschroma spoke about her own experience with BetterHelp. she claimed that a therapist BetterHelp paired her with didn’t show up for multiple sessions. Though BetterHelp wanted to work with her on a sponsorship, she “couldn’t in good conscience, after doing the trial, recommend it to you guys.”

“There’s nothing I can say other than there’s no way in hell I could recommend them to you guys,” Deschroma said.

Matas conceded this does happen sometimes, but allotted it to the number of BetterHelp users (30 million sessions, according to Matas) compared to available counselors (just over 3,000). This, divided by state, means that sometimes counselors miss a session.

“We actually looked at our no-show statistics,” Matas said. “Client no-show is a big problem. No-show counselors is a very, very low problem we have. We’ve only seen less than five percent of counselors not showing up be an issue.”

Matas added that users are encouraged to do their own digging into the therapist they’re paired up with and, if they have concerns, reach out to people at BetterHelp directly. That isn’t as understood among users, many of whom have posted a barrage of complaints about counselors not appearing for sessions or inadequate therapy.

One of the biggest complaints among users is that information isn’t clearly stated on the site — terms of service are difficult to find, price points aren’t made clear. Customers upset over being charged anywhere from $100 to $260 after signing up for a free trial period, many of whom have issued complaints on consumer watchdog group websites, simply didn’t read the terms and conditions, according to Matas.

“We have a weekly plan, we have a monthly plan, and the monthly plan tends to work out to be lower so people often take the monthly plan,” Matas said. “We’re very clear on the pricing. People don’t always read, everybody knows that. But whenever someone says, ‘I thought I was paying X but now I’m paying Y because I thought I was getting this plan,’ we will always offer refunds.”

Other BetterHelp users claim otherwise. Consumer watchdog sites and Twitter are full of testimonials from people claiming that they never received refunds despite asking for one. Their experiences with the app, and its customer service department, contradict what Matas wrote in a lengthy statement on Medium, and reiterated in his interview with Polygon.

“We have a very, very lenient refund policy,” Matas said. “One of the most lenient I’ve ever seen from any service provider online or offline.”

Still, the biggest concern customers have regarding payment is how confusing it seems — even if Matas thinks otherwise. It’s a facet of the company’s business model that even DeFranco called into question, wondering if a mental wellness app that is working with people dealing with their own personal issues should offer a free trial period without extensive discussion on how payments will work.

“I don’t know if it’s appropriate for them to have a free trial period, especially one that’s seven days,” DeFranco said. “It’s not like a Netflix subscription. It is a meaningful amount of money. That complaint, I completely get.”

Matas wouldn’t tell Polygon if the company is looking into reworking the app’s design to make pricing plans more apparent for users. He reiterated that pricing and billing cycles were made clear in emails to users, but then acknowledged that not everyone checks their email. Matas did acknowledge the company is “always looking at everything,” but defended the pricing options, visibility and followup immediately after.

“I think we’re definitely communicative during the trial, we’re explaining what we do very clearly, and then people can choose their plan,” Matas said. “If they got confused, they can get a refund. Whether we can make it bigger and bolder, we can look at that.”

It’s a YouTube issue

Although the controversy is gaining traction across media circles, Matas sees it as a YouTube problem — and that’s a world that he doesn’t consider BetterHelp a big player in.

Even with multiple YouTube creators working with BetterHelp sponsorships, some through their own accord and others through DeFranco’s Rogue Rocket, Matas sees it as an insular issue within an ecosystem that he doesn’t particularly understand.

“We’re not part of the YouTube sphere, and we were caught up in a drama that, for the most part, had nothing to do with us,” Matas said. “It was a fight that started before us, and we were used as a tool.”

He also spoke to many creators and fans calling out YouTube influencers who use BetterHelp as a sponsor, but never really spoke about mental health concerns on their channel, like Heath Hussain of Vlog Squad. Matas said the company tries to partner with creators who have spoken about mental health in the past.

“They talk about these topics and that’s what we want,” Matas said. “We don’t want the people who typically don’t share the mission. So they’ve been open about it, now they’re all talking about the problem, but the solution, and I think that’s a good thing.”

It’s also something that came up with DeFranco, who said that, although he couldn’t speak to why certain YouTubers decided to partner with BetterHelp for a sponsorship, he believed many did so in good faith.

“I think that people saw it as a possible entry point as a kind of a thing that they’re going through, and maybe in their mind this kind of just matched up into it,” DeFranco said. “But that would be me guessing as far as why people were integrating it.”

Still, DeFranco is taking allegations against the company, and his promotion of the service, seriously. He flew out to San Jose to meet with Matas and go over some of the most pressing topics. DeFranco told Polygon this wasn’t to clear his name, but to better understand exactly what BetterHelp was doing and decide his next steps.

“I can’t control how people react,” DeFranco said. “I can try and do is try to find out what is actually happening and you know, see if there is legitimacy behind claims and figure things out.”

Update: Philip DeFranco issued a statement late this afternoon, confirming that he and his company Rogue Rocket are cutting ties with BetterHelp.

“This is not based on anything that came from the meeting,” DeFranco tweeted, addressing a recent trip to BetterHelp’s offices, “but from a place of understanding that that part of the community does not feel it’s appropriate to have sponsorship with a company in the mental health space.”

DeFranco added that the partnership officially ended today, meaning it may take some time for ads to stop running on videos under the original arrangement between Rogue Rocket and BetterHelp. His full statement can be read below:

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