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YouTube’s BetterHelp mental health controversy, explained

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One of YouTube’s most prominent sponsors is caught in a whirlwind of controversy

Heath Hussar of Vlog Squad promoting BetterHelp
Heath Hussar/YouTube

YouTube creators often work with companies on sponsored videos, but a reported increase in placements for BetterHelp, a new wellness app, have viewers concerned that people are being misled.

The company describes BetterHelp as the “largest online counseling platform worldwide,” geared toward helping people dealing with issues “such as stress, anxiety, relationships, parenting, depression, addictions, eating, sleeping, trauma, anger, family conflicts, LGBT matters, grief, religion [or] self esteem.” The company’s FAQ section on its website clearly states BetterHelp’s app and counselors shouldn’t be used for people dealing with a severe mental illness (schizophrenia, bipolar disorder) or for people considering self-harm.

Instead, the app prides itself on having licensed therapists and mental health experts available to help people via text, phone call or video chat. That’s what many YouTubers who have accepted sponsorships from the company often say in their own videos, where they speak on the stresses in their personal lives and feelings bordering on anxiety or depression. Bobby Burns, Elle Mills, Philip DeFranco, Heath Hussar, Boogie2988, Shane Dawson and ChandlerNWilson are all creators who have videos sponsored by BetterHelp.

Many of these creators have spoken about mental health issues in the past, but as burnout becomes a bigger topic within the community — and mainstream world — sponsorships involving BetterHelp have increased, despite the app not being exactly what the creators are touting.

The issue with BetterHelp

YouTube’s business model allows for a transparency over demonetization issues. Sponsorships, like ones involving BetterHelp, are an understood aspect of the business.

But in ad reads for the app, YouTube creators describe a product that more and more people are expressing concerns over. ChandlerNWilson told his viewers the app was full of psychologists who could help people going through a tough time; Gabbie Hanna used the word “professional” to talk about the mental health experts available to talk to people.

The company’s terms of service tell a different story, though. The terms of service explicitly state that the company can’t guarantee a professional or even licensed professionals.

“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,” according to the terms of service.

The terms of service also acknowledge that the full responsibility of authenticating the person on the other end of the phone falls on the individual who signed up for the app.

“While we may try to do so from time to time, in our sole discretion, you acknowledge that we do not represent to verify, and do not guarantee the verification of, the skills, degrees, qualifications, licensure, certification, credentials, competence or background of any Counselor,” the terms of service reads. “It is your responsibility to conduct independent verification regarding any Counselor that provides you with Counselor Services (whether through the Platform or not) and we strongly recommend that you will conduct this verification prior to communicating with any Counselor through the Platform and on a continuous basis as you use the Platform.”

The BetterHelp terms of service were last updated in July 2016. None of this information appears in any of the videos that are sponsored by the app.

Since then, BetterHelp founder and CEO, Alon Matas, has taken to Reddit to defend BetterHelp’s name from concerned YouTube fans and numerous customers who have reported terrible experiences while using the app. People on Reddit, Twitter and in YouTube comments have claimed that counselors never showed up for appointments, or the company took hundreds of dollars for one month’s payment before the seven day free trial was up.

YouTuber Deschroma even uploaded a seven minute video detailing her terrible experience with BetterHelp, but added that she couldn’t speak to the experience of others.

“I couldn’t in good conscience, after doing the trial, recommend it to you guys,” Deschroma said in the video below. “There’s nothing I can say other than there’s no way in hell I could recommend them to you guys.”

Now, in wake of concerns raised by YouTube creators like Memeology 101, who produced a 9-part series on the BetterHelp controversy, Matas is going on the offense.

“I don’t have any response to the video because it’s plainly bizarre,” Matas wrote on Reddit. “You are welcomed to go to our provider directory (www.betterhelp.com/counselors) and see the credentials and licensing information of each one of our providers. If you find a single counselor who is currently active on the platform but isn’t a qualified professional, I will personally donate $500 to a charity of your choice ... I respect everyone’s opinions and happy to truly listen and learn. This is the opposite from PR.”

The YouTube connection

As the controversy continues to brew, YouTube creators are speaking out about their relationship and connection to BetterHelp. DeFranco, one of the biggest creators on the platform, issued a three-part statement on Twitter Wednesday night.

“I’ve been made aware that there are people calling one of our sponsors, BetterHelp, a scam because of what has been highlighted as concerning wording in their TOS. I reached out to BetterHelp’s founder for a statement to hopefully clear up the matter,” DeFranco tweeted, including a screenshot of a response that can be seen below. “Additionally they have welcomed people to go to betterhelp.com/counselors to scrub through the counselors and check their credentials which are listed on each of their profile pages. Now all of that said on a personal note: They have also invited me to their office to see and understand their team’s full process & procedures in person.

“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.”

DeFranco is one of the more outspoken creators, but his sentiments are echoed within the community. Boogie2988 said that although he used BetterHelp for two months before being sponsored by the company, and found it helpful, he was going to back away from sponsorships for the time being.

“I recommended it to viewers after that and continued to use it,” he tweeted. “Now that some people think its shady [sic] I’ll gladly back off until its proven otherwise.”

Backing away from the sponsorship does mean a loss of impressive affiliate money for creators; that’s part of the issue. Most of the videos that have BetterHelp sponsorships revolve around a creator discussing their own issues. While these are valid, viewers have complained that it feels like profiteering off mental illness. Affiliate links for BetterHelp can reportedly net creators $100, according to various publisher sites.

Comment sections under videos with BetterHelp ads, especially from creators who don’t normally discuss mental health, are full of critical viewers.

“Anytime YouTubers are being ‘real’ and ‘emotional’ they plug in BetterHelp,” one commenter wrote on a video from creator Trisha Paytas. “It makes me think how genuine is this?”

“This is so disingenuous,” another commenter wrote. “From the clickbaity title to the sponsorship to the story about her therapy session. This was solely an attempt to get a sponsored video out. All about the money. My attention is thinning here.”

It’s impossible to say how someone is feeling, and it may be unfair for commenters to assume that just because a creator is talking about their own issues they must be fake or exaggerated to sell a product. There is, however, a feeling of distrust among the community about the number of BetterHelp ads and sponsorships on YouTube.

It’s still murky

Though there is controversy over the company’s Terms of Service and the number of YouTube creators working with the company, some creators have delivered positive testimonies.

YouTuber Roberto Blake tweeted about his experience with the app, noting that it was a positive experience and he never received a sponsorship from BetterHelp.

“I’ve been using BetterHelp since Philip DeFranco first mentioned them,” he tweeted. “I’ve never had issues with the service and it has helped me the past few months and I’m not sponsored and at the writing of this post I don’t have an affiliate link or any benefit for mentioning them.”

The company boasts over 33 million sessions, with more than 2,000 counselors on the website. It’s an impressive number, and it means that some people are returning to the app.

Still, it only takes a Google search to discover a trove of negative reviews surrounding the app, all stemming from a lack of promised service. One negative complaint reads:

I enrolled in the 1 month “unlimited contact.” Counselor no call/no show to appointment and non-responsive. I enrolled in the “unlimited contact” plan for a price of $65 a week, for a total upfront payment of $260. This was the only plan offered on their website at that time. My first counselor responded to me, but did not set up any sessions. It felt as though she was just repeating what I was saying to her, without elaborating or offering guidance. I elected to switch counselors. The new counselor scheduled an appointment with me, but then did not follow through. He did not call to reschedule, or email, or notify me in any way. Simply a no call/no show. I was logged in on time for the session, and attempted to reach him. He did not respond at that time, modify or cancel the session, and did not reach back out to me for several days.

CEO Alon Matas said on Reddit that he won’t be responding to reactionary videos popping up on YouTube in recent days, but Polygon has reached out to him for clarification regarding the company’s terms of service and counselors.

Update: Alon Matas issued this statement to Polygon, reiterating that counselors go through background checks, and adding that the company’s terms of service will change to reflect that policy. The full statement can be read below.

We have a whole team that makes sure every provider we bring to the platform is fully licensed and in good standing. Providers who apply are required to provide proper licensure documentation, proof of identity, and references from other licensed practitioners who have worked with them. We then cross-check their licensure information with their respective state licensing board.

Additionally, our vetting process for each provider, which typically takes 4-5 weeks, goes well beyond checking credentials. Each potential provider needs to complete a case study exam by a licensed clinician and a video interview. The result of this rigorous process is that only about 15% of the therapists who apply to work through BetterHelp are accepted to the platform.

We also show the full licensing information for each provider to make it easy for users to do their own due diligence on their counselor. The Terms and Conditions document typically provides the legalese that defines the extent of liability and mitigates legal risks associated with such platforms. We will be revising the Terms and Conditions document so it more closely matches the vetting process we currently conduct.