The Disconcerting Digital Side of Mental Health Treatment

If you listen to podcasts or interact with any number of digital media outlets, you’re likely to be hit with a barrage of advertisements promising sorely needed assistance with mental health woes. While the ease-of-access and lack of waiting period may attract users, they likely don’t know when tapping into them that many of these exclusively online, for-profit companies are backed by deep-pocketed VC firms looking to cast a wide net of mental health services, often with muddled directives. For something as sensitive as mental health, a focus on quantity is a less effective strategy than quality.

The problem organizations like BetterHelp are trying to address is the care gap plaguing the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost 40% of adults in the nation cannot find help due to therapist shortages. However, experts in the industry and officials from top mental health professional associations believe actual effectiveness, particularly in terms of making good on the promise of advertisements, is lacking. “There are fundamental questions about what these companies are doing and whether they are reaching people who really need help,” said Dr. John Torous, the director of the digital psychiatry division at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. “They may be doing wonderful work, but it’s hard to know when we don’t have that data.”

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The COVID-19 pandemic led to the government waiving a provision requiring doctors to see a patient in person before prescribing controlled drugs. This has spurred a number of online mental health companies to offer controlled substances in their treatment plans, meaning potentially addictive drugs like Adderall or ones with potentially harmful side effects such as Zoloft could fall into the wrong hands.