Last week’s deep dive from Bloomberg Businessweek into the startup culture behind Cerebral, one of the country’s most popular and lucrative telehealth providers, is an infuriating, troubling look into what happens when Silicon Valley startup culture attempts to “disrupt” the mental health industry. Spoilers ahead: It does far, far more harm than good. That doesn’t change the fact that business is booming for Cerebral, and social media platforms like TikTok are largely to blame.
“Getting patients to come to Cerebral is as easy as posting on social media,” explains Businessweek, “The company markets on Instagram and TikTok, often with variations on the message, ‘Have you ever thought you might have ADHD?’ Some ads suggest that symptoms as common as difficulty with multitasking, focusing, and stress, as well as poor planning, procrastination, and disorganization can all be symptoms of ADHD.”
Sure, those can be symptoms of ADHD. But they can also be symptoms of being a being human. Either way, a bunch of people are getting amphetamines meant to treat ADHD mailed directly to their doorsteps, often thanks to a #cerebralpartner influencer.
Uber mentalities for mental health — Past employees of Cerebral describe a work environment that is essentially a glorified pill factory exporting medications nationwide. One patient coordinator recounts being assigned 1,000 users on her first day and generally fields around 100 messages per day, often from people experiencing some kind of mental health crisis. Growth and quick turnaround times are prioritized over genuine, nuanced medical care. I’m not a medical professional by any stretch of the imagination, but that does strike me as the exact opposite of how these sorts of things are supposed to work.
Capitalizing on virality — Of course, Cerebral is nothing if not savvy, and appears to have successfully embraced a social media advertising presence that has helped to quadruple its valuation between June and December of last year. After Olympic gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from competitions citing mental health reasons, Cerebral managed to rope her into a partnership that now sees her as “Chief Impact Officer,” thus catapulting the brand’s name recognition even higher. Factor in the TikTok partners reaching hundreds of thousands of people, and you have a ludicrously successful company. An unethical horrorshow of a company, but a successful horrorshow, nonetheless.