The first round of digital mental health interventions came out of telemedicine. Many of these early efforts focused on connecting veterans suffering from PTSD with therapists online, since many veterans are uncomfortable with the stigma of seeking mental help and also may have mobility issues. But as of this spring, services offered to the average citizen are on the rise too. But almost as soon as these average citizen services arrived, studiesfound that these apps’ usage numbers were low.
A new round of products focuses on meeting prospective patients where they are—on social media—and drawing them to tools and services that already exist. “There have been excellent results in suicide prevention when researchers have been able to recruit patients right off the internet, just based on what they’re clicking,” says John Naslund, who studies digital mental health at Harvard Medical School. “There’s a lot of interest in learning from those clicks, getting people a targeted ad, and getting them the help they need that way.”
Last year, Facebook created an algorithm to monitor teenagers’ moods for signs of insecurity and worthlessness (both risk factors for suicidal thoughts) for the purpose of serving them ads for mental health services. Other offerings like Betterhelp, an online counseling service, have zeroed in on influencer marketing as a way to draw in patients. Health care companies have been refining this strategy for about a year—it’s not as natural for an Instagrammer to hawk a pharmaceutical firm as it is, say, sneakers—but Betterhelp managed to get endorsements from over 100 YouTubers, including superstars like Phillip DeFranco and Shane Dawson. (BetterHelp was even a sponsor for Dawson’s infamous Jake Paul series.)
This approach, though, has been beset by scandal. In an ongoing brouhaha, many of the influencers who promoted BetterHelp have now denounced the service after users accused the company of profiting off mental health problems while providing unprofessional, substandard service. (In a recent Medium post, BetterHelp’s CEO called these claims “false.”) Facebook’s ad targeting system has been widely criticized as invasive and profiteering, and in some cases, therapists have found that being bombarded with reminders that you’re depressed is, well, depressing.