Mental health apps like BetterHelp can misuse user data

Images of the BetterHelp interface: booking a session, a video session and a text exchange.

BetterHelp allows users to connect with an online therapist, but the app has a less than stellar track record.
Picture: BetterHelp

A new report published by Mozilla *Confidentiality not included The buyer’s guide revealed shocking information about dozens of therapy apps on the market: 28 out of 32 of them are said to capitalize on customer data.

1 in 5 American adults reported struggling with a mental illness in 2020 according to to National Institute of Mental Health— that’s 52.9 million people. The Mental Health Association found a similar result in their 2022 report on the state of mental health in America, and further revealed that 27 million American adults with mental illness do not receive treatment for it. This number is high and there are many reasons why people might not seek therapy.

“Some people may avoid accessing care out of fear that other people they know will find out they are seeing a therapist,” said Alissa Davis.assistant professor in the School of Social Work at Columbia University—explained to Gizmodo via email. “Other people may have an internalized stigma or be afraid to admit they are struggling with a mental illness and need extra support.” Davis further cited poor interactions with previous therapists, a shortage of mental health professionals, and the high expense associated with mental health care as additional barriers for those seeking therapy.

When mental health apps like BetterHelp and Headspace hit the digital market, they were a beacon of hope in an otherwise turbulent landscape: mental health care when you need it, for a relatively cheap price, in the privacy of your own home. But the mental health app bubble may be starting to burst. Axios reports that the digital therapy boom of the past two years, fueled by the existentialism of the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, is beginning to worry experts in the field as apps may not properly target the needs of its clients .

If that wasn’t enough, a new report from Mozilla contains damning information about the safety of these mental health apps. *Mozilla’s Privacy Not Included is a buyer’s guide to provide consumers and businesses with actionable information about certain products, services, and applications. In their report on 32 mental health apps, they flagged 28 for not adhering to the *Privacy not included user security standards. These standards are judged on:

  • What the company does with user data,
  • How a user can control their own data,
  • The company’s track record in protecting user data, and
  • How the company meets Mozilla Minimum security standards.

The list of applications analyzed by Mozilla is stratified, where those at the top were deemed “Not scary!” while the bottom ones were labeled “Super Spooky!” Four applications—wysa, PTSD Coach, Head spaceand Glorify— have not received a warning label. Notable flagged apps included RAINNa chat app for sexual assault survivors and their loved ones that may not protect user identities, Calma guided meditation app that allegedly uses your data for targeted advertisements on other platforms, and King James Bible, a daily bible verse app with a shadowy parent company. Some applications deemed questionable by Mozilla, such as Breathe, Think, Do with Sesame from the Sesame Workshop, are even intended for children.

“Talk therapy apps like Talkspace and BetterHelp are of concern to us because they collect a lot of personal information to be able to connect users to a therapist,” Jen Caltrider, head of *Privacy Not Include, told Gizmodo by e -mail. Caltrider further explained that BetterHelp directs users to an intake questionnaire before they can see some sort of privacy notice. “Where is [the questionnaire] the data goes? Is it shared only with Better Help? With Google? With the others?”

BetterHelp, one of the most commonly used therapy apps, is also one of the lowest rated apps on the list, and its track record is a bit rocky. Notably, in 2018, the app launched an aggressive marketing campaign, where YouTube personalities like Shane Dawson, Phillip DeFranco and Elle Mills, hailed the app as paid advertising. Some youUsers who downloaded the app at the request of these YouTubers were unhappy with the service and discovered that BetterHelp’s Terms of use declared:

We do not control the quality of Counseling Services and we do not determine whether an Counselor is qualified to provide a specific service or whether a Counselor is correctly classified or a good match for you… You agree, confirm and acknowledge that you are aware that the counseling services are not a complete substitute for an examination and/or face-to-face session by a licensed qualified professional.

BetterHelp’s Terms and Coneditions have since been updated and do not include the quoted passages.

“While some mental health apps have secure data protections in place that comply with HIPAA and other regulatory laws, many mental health apps lack these systems,” Davis says. “Because mental health apps are unregulated, it can be difficult for individuals to know which apps are protected to ensure the safety of their personal data.”

Mental health apps may have tried to bridge the gap between people with mental illness and proper health care, but along the way, some have sacrificed the protection of their users and their data. As access to mental health continues to be a growing problem in the United States, there may be a world where apps are a solution, but until they are appropriately regulated, they must be treated as nothing more than a crutch.

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