When Katie Mac first signed up for Cerebral, she thought she’d reached the end of a long-running search.
At the start of the pandemic, Mac, like millions of other Americans, signed up for therapy sessions through online services. She virtually met with a counselor she found through BetterHelp — one of the most well-known and popular therapy apps — but the service wasn’t a great fit. So she canceled the service after two months and started looking for something different.
Months later, that something appeared. All over her TikTok feed, Mac started seeing ads for Cerebral, an online therapy service that promised a range of experts based in every state, with a particular focus on her ADHD — something Mac hadn’t gotten with previous therapists.
“I’ve done therapy a few times throughout the years, but my ADHD was always a secondary concern,” Mac, 27, told In The Know. “I had always been focused on working through a more pressing issue.”
Feeling optimistic, she decided to give the service a try. But that optimism was quickly replaced by feelings of anger, frustration and betrayal.
Her experience, which she later chronicled in a series of viral TikToks, was far from ideal.
‘I never met with a therapist’
Mac first posted about Cerebral on Dec. 12. In that video, she warned her fellow TikTokers to ignore Cerebral’s ads and avoid signing up for the service. She then explained how Cerebral allegedly “scammed” her by taking her money and refusing to give her a refund for mental health support she never even received.
As Mac explained in that first clip, Cerebral requires users to sign up for a membership before they’re officially matched with a therapist. During that process, Mac entered her credit card details and other personal information, including her home state and what she needed from her sessions.
But when it came time for her to choose a therapist, Mac says she encountered a major hurdle. Cerebral’s algorithm only offered her two therapist options, neither of which met her needs.
“So I immediately email support, and I’m like, ‘Hey, what’s the deal? Neither of these people meets the criteria I requested,’” Mac explained in her video. “[But] they were like, ‘Oh, those are the only two options in your entire state.’ So hardly the hundreds of options they advertise.”
Mac immediately requested to cancel the service and asked for her money back. However, she says Cerebral’s support team refused, claiming that company policy forbids them from offering refunds. Eventually, the company offered her a 30% refund — which she found almost as shocking as being offered nothing at all.
“I was like, ‘I didn’t use your service. I never even completed the onboarding process. I never met with a therapist. Like, I got zero out of your service,’” Mac said.
As her dilemma grew, Mac began to realize she wasn’t alone. She researched Cerebral on third-party review sites such as Trustpilot and the Better Business Bureau (BBB), only to find dozens and dozens of ex-customers with the same complaints.
On the Better Business Bureau, there appear to be two main entries for reviews for Cerebral, the most popular of which gives the service a rating of 1.07/5 based on 68 customer reviews. According to that BBB entry, there have been 140 consumer complaints filed against Cerebral in the past 12 months.
“Have tried three times to cancel the service, they keep charging my account,” one review on Trustpilot, where Cerebral has a rating of 3.4/5, reads. “All I get is lip service. I have canceled my credit card, and they still get through … Do not use this fraud company.”
“What a scam,” another one-star review states. “As part of the sign-up process, you have to pay for the first month before you can see available providers or schedule an appointment. That should have been a red flag.”
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‘Not the same relationship’
Mac said it was “upsetting” to learn that so many Cerebral customers had a negative experience like hers.
“The most frustrating piece was the people who had the same — if not worse — experience as me, and they just gave up,” she told In The Know. “They believed Cerebral when they were told that because they agreed to the Terms of Service, they had waived their right to a refund.”
But while many reviewers seemed to have given up, Mac did not. She continued to elevate the issue, ultimately threatening to report Cerebral to the Better Business Bureau — a move that, as she claimed in a follow-up clip on TikTok, finally earned her a full refund.
Despite that outcome, Mac has continued to speak out against Cerebral, calling the company “predatory” and accusing it of “gaslighting” its customers.
But the reality is that these practices are not uncommon among online therapy services. Amy Morin, a licensed psychotherapist and the editor-in-chief of Verywell Mind, an online mental health resource site, told In The Know that therapy apps use a variety of systems to match users with a therapist.
“They all do it very differently,” she said. “Sometimes there’s a computer algorithm that matches you with your needs, and then some of them have a human being on the other side who will give you a therapist.”
Morin said she’s seen other companies use a business model similar to Cerebral’s — that is, requiring customers to sign up and pay before they’re matched with a therapist. However, she’s also noticed that structure can cause frustration.
In Morin’s experience, customers prefer the ability to choose their own therapist. And they want to know what they’re getting before they pay.
“Of course, there’s the issue of, ‘How do I want to pay money if I don’t even know who I’m gonna speak with yet?’” Morin said. “That has been a concern, sort of across the board.”
In a statement to In The Know, Cerebral said it has since updated its own policy regarding therapist matching. Now, the company says, users who are unable to match with a therapist after a certain period are able to receive full refunds.
“After this incident, we conducted an internal review of our refund process and have updated our policies so that members who are not able to match with a clinician within a specified time period will receive full refunds,” a Cerebral spokesperson told In The Know via email. “Cerebral is dedicated to helping people find the mental health care they need and providing the best experience for everyone. We’re always open to feedback and improving the experience for our members.”
Morin said she’s seen other services move away from this model too. And even before its policy change, Cerebral seemed to be a good fit for some customers. In Verywell Mind’s 2021 Online Therapy Awards — which polled both customers and mental health experts on their experiences with several online therapy services — Cerebral won the award for “Best Patient Satisfaction.”
One of the app’s biggest benefits, according to Verywell Mind, is its affordability. Cerebral offers three main payment tiers, including a basic plan starting at just $85 per month.
As Morin points out, this is a common trend among therapy apps in general. The services have surged in popularity since the start of the pandemic, largely because they offer cheaper, more accessible and more flexible options for therapy. Of course, those benefits can also come with unique downsides.
“Low cost for the client is great, but low pay for the therapist often leads to burnout and subpar care,” Rebecca Phillips, a licensed professional counselor and the operator of the Mend Modern Therapy counseling service, told In The Know. “As a whole, these apps are widely known among therapists for low pay. When you have a therapist working for too low pay per client, you have a therapist working with too many clients.”
In Morin’s words, online therapy is simply “not the same relationship as if you were in the therapy room.” Many offer tantalizing features — like increased anonymity, text-based counseling and the ability to switch therapists at will — that cater to many situations.
But there are drawbacks. It’s why Morin believes the online therapy “pendulum” will eventually swing back toward in-person counseling.
“I wonder if at some point people will say, ‘Wait, I want that human connection. I want to go sit in somebody’s office and talk to them face-to-face,’” Morin told In The Know.
‘Their ads are aggressive’
To Mac, Cerebral is unique among online therapy services. The app has surged in notoriety through ads on TikTok, Facebook and other social media sites, and it even features celebrity endorsers, such as Olympic superstar Simone Biles. Mac claims this “aggressive” advertising is part of the problem.
“I work in digital and social media marketing, and I feel confident saying their ads are aggressive,” she said. “I was getting a Cerebral ad every four or five videos at one point on TikTok.”
These ads, which Mac calls “misleading,” present Cerebral as a therapy service with hundreds of options for young people seeking help. On TikTok, where nearly 50% of users are between the ages of 10 and 29, that can present a problem.
“Imagine being 18 and at college, or out of your parents’ house for the first time, and needing help,” Mac said. “At 18, you don’t necessarily know how to find a doctor through your insurance company. You might be intimidated by the red tape. So when an app advertises that they can easily match you with a therapist — of course it sounds like a good option.”
It’s one of the big reasons Mac felt obliged to share her story on TikTok. What she found — that some users had faced similar struggles — was disheartening, but it also gave her hope that spreading the word could make a difference.
Mac told In The Know she’s since found a better fit, a virtual therapist based in her home state of Massachusetts. Her hope is that other customers like her will manage to do the same.
“One recurring comment I saw on my video was that many people just gave up trying to find a provider after their bad experience with Cerebral,” she said. “And I really, really hope that those people can find someone who can support them in an ethical way.”
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