Following the death of eight people (with many more injured) on November 5 during his Astroworld show, rapper Travis Scott has said he will cover funeral costs for the families of those killed. The other thing he’s doing is a bit weirder. Scott, who is already facing fourteen lawsuits related to Astroworld, is partnering with BetterHelp, a counseling app, to offer one free month of “therapy” to those affected by Friday’s events.
“Partnering” with an app typically entails a celebrity being paid to promote a company; is Scott making money off the collaboration? Either way, such a move is more befitting a podcast advertisement than a deadly tragedy — imagine promo code SICKOMODE, or maybe MASSCASUALTYINCIDENT. Even setting aside the unseemliness of the partnership, BetterHelp is a predatory disaster, the last place toward which potentially traumatized people should be steered.
The company describes itself as the “largest online counseling platform worldwide,” a service geared toward “making professional counseling accessible, affordable, convenient.” With health care in the United States so expensive and byzantine, a lot of people can’t afford mental-health treatment. BetterHelp sees that niche, and fills it. On its face, the idea of making counseling more accessible sounds great. But, as with so many other tech-industry disruptions, in practice, it’s an extractive nightmare.
For starters, there is the quality of care offered on BetterHelp, which connects users with therapists who can help via text, phone call, or video chat. Examples of poor care on the app abound, with therapists unresponsive or even bot-like in their messages: in the wake of Scott’s announcement, one former BetterHelp user posted a screenshot of a text she’d sent a therapist about feeling suicidal. The therapist texted back, “oh.” While the company has partnered with YouTubers in the past, controversies about the reliability of its treatment — specifically, the vagueness in BetterHelp’s terms of service as to the qualifications of its network of mental-health professionals — led several such “partners” to walk back their endorsements.
As an aside, many podcasts currently partner with BetterHelp and offer the same one-month-free promo that Scott is giving to Astroworld attendees. In fact, if you sign up for the app via its partnership with Ariana Grande, you get a free month and 15 percent off month two.
The point of such deals is that many users will forget they entered their credit card information when signing up for the promo — which, to be clear, in this case amounts to a grand total of four telehealth appointments to help them process a mass-casualty event — and will auto-pay the monthly fee after the promo ends. In the meantime, the app shares users’ mental health data with third parties like Facebook, an extraction that is concerning at the best of times and, in this situation, nauseating (suffice it to say that such data sharing violates patient-therapist confidentiality, even if the company says it abides by Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act [HIPAA] guidelines). Astroworld attendees were already put at risk for the sake of corporate profits, and now they are being offered the consolation of having their well-being exploited once again.
Finally, there is the matter of what BetterHelp does to therapy as a field of work. The app pays therapists twenty to thirty dollars an hour, well below the wages of traditional therapy. Just as microwork websites break down professionalized skills like translation into tiny, discrete tasks and enlists workers paid below minimum wage to complete those tasks, so does BetterHelp undermine existing standards in therapy. According to one therapist, the company’s pay calculations include word counts, i.e., the number of words a counselor texts a patient. If a counselor goes over the maximum count, the app can stop paying them. While many of us have at times wished our therapists would shut up, the idea of having one tasked with counting her every word does not instill confidence.
BetterHelp is called the Uber of therapy for a reason: it takes a service that many people lack access to and wrings all the profit and data it can out of it. Some users get something out of it — that’s true of ridesharing companies, too. But the model is indefensible; if a system is broken, making it even worse doesn’t count as progress.