When BetterHelp found itself in a YouTube controversy

I’m BetterHelp’s founder. Here are my thoughts.

All companies strive to bring value to their customers, but very few companies can truly say that their value is to enable a better life. BetterHelp, the company I founded five years ago, is one of those. We have helped hundreds of thousands of people conquer their most profound challenges by providing access to affordable, private, professional counseling from a licensed therapist. For so many people, BetterHelp has been a life changer, literally.

A huge perk of working at such an extraordinary organization is the heartwarming feedback and emails we get on a daily basis. To date, over 30,000 people have voluntarily come forward to share their experience of how BetterHelp affected their lives.

While other companies may show numbers like revenues and profits on their dashboards, the big screen in our office shows the latest testimonials we received. Knowing that we were able to help people, sometimes while they were in their darkest moments, motivates us and fills us with passion and pride every day.

That’s why it has been an unusual experience over the last week when we found ourselves in the midst of a social media storm. While almost all the negative attention did not come from any of our members or from people who have used our product, it was still disheartening to see.

So how did it all start?

One of our core missions is to destigmatize mental health. We firmly believe that nobody should ever feel ashamed or embarrassed to reach out for help. For that reason, we partner with people who share our mission and are willing to discuss these issues publicly. There is no better way to give people the courage to seek help than knowing that other people — despite being famous and successful — may be struggling as well. Earlier this year we teamed up with Kevin Love, an all-star NBA player, who was candid about his mental health struggles and described in detail how therapy has changed his life.

As part of this initiative, we also supported and sponsored several YouTube creators who have long been discussing challenges around well-being. Many of them have also used our service and have been proponents of counseling and caring for your mental health.

In late September, one of these creators published an episode of his video series and mentioned BetterHelp as his sponsor. Unfortunately, on that video, he also picked a “virtual fight” with another YouTube host who has several million followers. While most of that drama was purely for entertainment purposes, not everybody saw it this way, including many of the popular host’s fan base. The attacks on the YouTube creator quickly became attacks on BetterHelp as a sponsor, although we had no control, oversight or prior knowledge about the content.

Then things escalated quickly.

The community of creators and fans on YouTube can be passionate and intense like no other. In part, this what makes it fun to watch and follow. With such a high volume of content being produced for YouTube, it makes sense that there is a whole genre of creators that exist solely to react to the actions of other creators, often in scandalous and sensational ways, flirting between truth and fiction. One of these channels, sensing interest, produced a video “exposing” and smearing the YouTube creator and BetterHelp as the sponsor. In their efforts to show that BetterHelp is a “scam,” and therefore the YouTube creator is also a “scammer,” they dug into our legal Terms and Conditions document. They found that although we claim our providers are licensed therapists, we have a disclaimer that asks users to also verify their counselor’s licensing information. The “conclusion” was that the counselors at BetterHelp are not verified and “everybody can be a provider,” thus exposing people to inadequate and potentially dangerous care.

Of course, it 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.

But none of it mattered.

A known rule of the Internet is that nobody can ever predict or explain virality. Something that looks like a sure hit can be ignored and forgotten while something else that is entirely meritless can catch on and go viral because of a “perfect storm” of coincidences. Unfortunately for us, these ridiculous allegations were fueled by the YouTube drama that took a life of its own. Within days there were multiple videos discussing the “BetterHelp scam,” mostly quoting and referencing each other in a frantic echo chamber.

To keep the fire going and to produce original content that brings “new revelations,” the false accusations spiraled and expanded. BetterHelp is sharing information with Microsoft. BetterHelp is used for training AI bots. BetterHelp is stealing money from users. BetterHelp is operated by the Mossad (yes, seriously). And more.

One of the favorite conspiracy theories was that our business model is selling data to third parties. This is such a far-fetched conspiracy that I feel awkward addressing it. 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. There is nothing we take more seriously than the security and privacy of our members. It also goes without saying that counseling is a strictly regulated space and selling such data would be a gross violation of federal laws, state laws, HIPAA regulations, and our own terms and privacy policy.

What did I learn?

It was fascinating to see how the most bizarre and senseless ideas can spread. One person writes a wild speculation and then a second person quotes it as a fact. Then it’s quoted and repeated by the third and fourth person, and by the time it gets to the fifth, he already heard the same thing from four other people and if so many people said the exact same thing it surely must be true! At some point, BetterHelp was the second highest trending thread in the “conspiracy” section of Reddit, next to some other really weird stuff.

So, are we perfect?

No, we’re not. First, there was the issue of the disclaimer in the Terms and Conditions about our limited liability in ensuring counselor’s licensure. Yes, it’s standard legalese, and a similar disclaimer can be found — almost word for word — in the Terms and Conditions of many similar platforms. But it’s also possible to see how this can make someone feel uncomfortable. Besides, with our rigorous vetting process, it’s simply unnecessary. Therefore, we decided to update the Terms and Conditions, and on October 4 we removed this disclaimer altogether.

Second, some commenters quoted alleged experiences of unsatisfied users who encountered either technical issues, billing issues, or service quality issues. We were unable to verify the authenticity of any of these claims, but it’s inevitable that on a platform that has facilitated over 30 million counseling interactions, there have been cases where we did not meet expectations. Our dedicated and proactive support team is there to take care of such unfortunate incidents, whether by helping users to find an alternative therapist or by resolving other concerns. In 2016 we adopted an unprecedented “extreme total satisfaction” policy which means that every user who feels unsatisfied for any reason is entitled to a full refund. We are one of the very few online service companies at this scale which received the perfect “A+” rating from the Better Business Bureau for exceptional customer care. We are proud of this rare achievement.

How did it all affect us?

Ironically, over this interesting week, we’ve had a record number of new members who signed up. It seems that these events ended up creating more awareness for the service, and most people were perfectly capable of distinguishing between reality and fiction. During this time, we’ve also received tremendous encouragement from many people who expressed their gratitude for what we did for them or their loved ones. This support has truly helped our team to remain determined and focused on fulfilling our mission.

If you have any questions or concerns, please feel free to contact me directly.

Yours,
Alon Matas
Founder, BetterHelp

UPDATES:

  1. Dr. Todd Grande, the President of the Delaware Board of Mental Health and Chemical Dependency Professionals, has published an interesting video covering the controversy from a clinical and professional standpoint.
  2. On November 13, we announced a complete revamp of our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy.