Over the last week, some of YouTube’s biggest personalities have become embroiled in a controversy surrounding an app that connects people to mental health counsellors. The mental health app has sponsored top YouTubers like Philip DeFranco, Boogie2988 and Shane Dawson and reportedly offers these video makers referral fees when fans sign up to get help. It has led to questions over the sincerity of YouTubers’ conversations around mental health.
Earlier this year, YouTuber Elle Mills had a very public meltdown, citing burnout and depression. And last month, Mills candidly talked about what happened next in a video titled “The Aftermath of My YouTube Breakdown.” At the end of the video, Mills plugged the BetterHelp app.
“This video touches on mental health,” she said. “If you’re currently struggling your mental health, I highly encourage you to reach out to someone... In light of this video, I’m working with BetterHelp to help provide another resource to you guys.” Under the video, there’s a link in the description: For every person who signed up for e-counseling through Mills’ link, Mills would apparently receive a kickback, YouTubers with similar sponsorships would later admit.
Now that BetterHelp’s services are under scrutiny, the YouTubers sponsored by it are as well. Comments under her video are sceptical of her intentions. “The whole video is just a giant big advertisement...,” said one viewer. Said another, “More like: I have depression, but thanks to better help my checking account has never looked better.” Despite the apparent earnestness and emotional rawness in Mills’ video, fans couldn’t help but question her intentions.
BetterHelp bills itself as the “world’s largest counselling service.” The service claims to connect users to one of nearly 2,300 affiliated therapists, who counsel patients via computer, smartphone or tablet “anytime, anywhere.” The app has been around for four years and offers free trials to potential new patients, after that costing about $35 (£27) to $80 (£61) a week. It markets itself as an affordable and convenient way to get help when life is getting too challenging to deal with alone, in contrast to in-person therapy, which can be expensive and difficult to integrate into busy schedules.
Last month, a YouTuber named Memeology101 began publishing videos casting doubt on BetterHelp’s business practices, and over the last few weeks, behemoth channels like DramaAlert and PewDiePie have jumped on board. Critics are now raising an eyebrow at BetterHelp because of a few lines in its terms and conditions that implied it couldn’t guarantee that its counsellors were vetted and qualified. Until 4 October, the terms and conditions read, “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. . . 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.”
Dozens of negative reviews came to light after this information surfaced. On the website for the Better Business Bureau, a US-based watchdog for business practices, some users complained that they paid up to $260 (£197) after the free trial but did not receive access to a therapist. Others said they felt misled by the app’s pricing options. On a review site called Highya, a couple reviewers claimed that they weren’t clear about BetterHelp’s policies and were unexpectedly charged money. Also raising eyebrows were BetterHelp’s privacy policies. Its site says it may record or monitor all transactions for “quality assurance and training purposes.” It may similarly “share aggregated information” and sell personal information.
BetterHelp founder Alon Matas responded to these allegations in a Medium post Monday explaining that they “couldn’t be further from the truth”:
“As we explain on our site, 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. . .
Matas also addressed a tweak the company made to its terms and conditions, calling those lines “standard legalese” and saying they removed them on October 4. He noted that the company had received an “A+” from the Better Business Bureau and that “every user who feels unsatisfied for any reason is entitled to a full refund.”
While Matas’ post appeared to address concerns about the platform’s vetting process and business model, it didn’t take the heat off YouTubers who had been receiving money in exchange for referrals. To critics, it felt scummy for YouTubers to be profiting off their fans’ mental health concerns, whether or not BetterHelp was a legitimate and useful service. Were YouTubers just faking their interest in mental health to boost their sponsor’s profile? Boogie2988, Shane Dawson, Elle Mills and Bobby Burns, who has also been sponsored by BetterHelp, did not return Kotaku’s requests for comment by press time.
In a YouTube video, Boogie2988, who said he used the service himself, said, “Here’s where I really screwed up: I didn’t read the terms of service for myself. I trusted the other YouTubers that were advertising it. And maybe that’s not something I should do moving forward.”
YouTuber Philip DeFranco was at the centre of this. Defranco, who runs an enormous news channel with 6.3 million subscribers, has made several videos sponsored by BetterHelp and helped connect YouTubers like Boogie2988 and Shane Dawson to the app. Their referral links mentioned “RogueRocket,” a company DeFranco owns.
DeFranco has not responded to Kotaku’s request for comment, but did publish a video about the allegations against him (“That I’m a mastermind scammer running a ponzi scheme”). DeFranco said that a small goal for his company is acting as a “third-party ad agency,” adding that the BetterHelp deal seemed like a great idea from every angle. “We knew of several creators who were having a hard time finding sponsors for their fantastic content,” he went on to say. “It seemed like a no-brainer that we’d take this win on all fronts, connect those people. We’d handle everything for them, and then like an agency does, we’d take a small percentage for the connection and the upkeep.” In the same video, DeFranco said that he’d suspended his sponsorship with BetterHelp.
On YouTube and Twitter, critics are tearing into DeFranco, even after he published his video defending himself. “If you really cared about your fans you would’ve never done the sponsorship because of how easily sketchy the whole thing sounds. But I guess you were more concerned about getting $200 from every person who signed up because of you,” said one YouTube commenter. Another, succinctly: “How dare you make money off your depressed fans.”
What’s really irked fans of BetterHelp-sponsored YouTubers isn’t necessarily that they didn’t pre-empt fans’ concerns about the app, like privacy or professionalism—although that’s been a big concern. It’s that they can’t be sure their favourite YouTubers are sincere when they’re talking about their own mental health problems while simultaneously promoting a therapy site. Here’s the thing, though: YouTubers aren’t your friends. They’re making a living. Sincerity is a high goal, but it’s always good to be sceptical when that’s one of the platform’s greatest money-making assets.
Image: Philip DeFranco