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In-Depth: The Curious Websites of American Addiction Centers, Including MentalHelp.net

Recovery Brands Doesn’t Appear to Follow Its Own Ethics Statement

We asked for comment from AAC about their leadership role in online marketing ethics for addiction centers (and whether some new government regulations might be called for given the kinds of issues we’ve found). The company responded in part:

Our online marketing practices are predicated on providing as much genuine value and useful information as possible to consumers. […]

We hold ourselves to the highest standards of online marketing. Those standards include transparency, a clear differentiation between sponsored and original content, and a commitment to always get better. […]

We believe in leading by example. While some government regulations may evolve in this area, we believe the industry as a whole can do a better job of policing itself now — and we want to be part of the solution.

Sounds good, right? Almost like all of the companies websites and microsites should be clearly labeled as being run by a part of American Addiction Centers.

For example, our Recovery Brands subsidiary has published a Code of Digital Marekting[sic] Ethics here and authored a White paper on digital marketing ethics in the treatment space. Furthermore, we are actively participating in an industry-led organization dedicated to promoting better digital marketing ethics in addiction treatment.

The irony is that AAC’s Recovery Brands “Ethics Statement” includes the following:

2. Transparency

While we are an ad-supported publisher, we clearly distinguish ads from content. We fully disclose site ownership and sponsorships. [emphasis added]

On all of the sites we’ve visited that appear to be run by AAC’s Recovery Brands, we could find no clear indication or notice of who owns or operates the site (except one — rehabs.com).1

My Opinion: Stay Away from Addiction Websites

This article largely focuses on American Addictions Centers and its subsidiaries (because of their recent quiet overtaking of MentalHelp.net and a code of ethics that apparently is more about marketing than action).

But we’ve previously singled out others, and you could easily include Intervention Allies (who runs such stellar typosquatting sites as alcoholl.com, crystalmethh.com, rehabss.com, alcoholrehabb.com and drugabusee.com) and Advanced Recovery Systems (who appears to run addiction-treatment.com) in the mix. There’s also anonymous-hotline.com which claims it’s an “Alcoholics Cocaine & Narcotics Anonymous Helpline” but, again, is apparently run by an an addiction treatment center (we got put on hold for the “National Addiction Institute”). All of these folks appear to be running these sites anonymously, hoping you don’t ask too many questions about who or what is behind the site.

Until the addiction treatment industry cleans up its online marketing act (perhaps through federal oversight such as the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, since such sites appear to be purposely vague about their owner/operator?), I’d encourage you to simply stay away from any addiction-run website. It’s the safest course of action. One clear give-away you’re on an addiction-run website is a banner ad — usually near the top of the site — that encourages people to call a toll-free telephone number for an addiction or treatment specialist. I’d jump off of any such site immediately and Google for a different site on the same topic.2

It’s also important to note that there’s very little research to suggest that going to an addiction rehab center benefits patients more than just regular outpatient psychotherapy treatment. This is a huge industry that, in my opinion, is based upon little science but many false promises.

It is very unfortunate that these large, multi-million dollar companies seem to feel the need to engage in an apparent pattern of deceit against ordinary people seeking addiction treatment. In my opinion, these kinds of actions are not a sign of ethical behavior. We call on American Addictions Centers to take the leadership role they claim and publish a list of all the domains and websites it owns and/or operates. Until that time, I personally wouldn’t want to get involved with a company that does business this way.3

 

Disclosure: I have no direct financial holdings or positions in any addiction, rehab, or treatment center, or web marketing firm. Psych Central may display advertising from time to time from various treatment centers, but such ads are handled exclusively by external third-parties. Psych Central may also host uncompensated blogs from addiction professionals.

 

In-Depth: The Curious Websites of American Addiction Centers, Including MentalHelp.net

Footnotes:

  1. If you dig long and hard enough, you can find telltale signs of who owns what website — even when they try and hide the registration of the domain. But this is a level of significant investigation and research the average consumer wouldn’t be expected to engage in. []
  2. Otherwise, you need to fully research the site you’re visiting to see who is actually running it. If the site does not have an “About Us” section which clearly indicates the names of specific editorial staff who oversee the site on a day-to-day basis, that’s a red-flag. But be warned! This industry is so seedy, some of these addiction marketing firms are apparently happy to make up fake people in order to complete the illusion of legitimacy. []
  3. And to be clear, this isn’t a problem exclusive to the addiction industry; web health giant WebMD also has a bunch of loosely-branded websites like MedicineNet.com that you’d have to dig to understand it’s owned and operated by WebMD. []

This article has been updated from the original version, which was originally published here on October 16, 2015.


John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.


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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2019). In-Depth: The Curious Websites of American Addiction Centers, Including MentalHelp.net. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 5, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/in-depth-the-curious-websites-of-american-addiction-centers-including-mentalhelp-net/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 23 May 2019 (Originally: 16 Oct 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 23 May 2019
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