Anonymous mental health app ‘Unmasked’ launches at the 5Cs

An iPad is open to the App Store listing of Unmasked.
Unmasked, a new anoymous wellness app created for and by students, launched at the Claremont Colleges on Oct. 30. (Talia Bernstein • The Student Life)

Finding the proper resources is only half the journey for those seeking mental health help. Although there are a number of resources aimed at improving the mental health of students across the 7Cs, there are a multitude of factors that could prevent a student from fully accessing the help they need. 

Unmasked, a wellness app created for students by students, aims to break down these barriers through anonymous messages and posts. Launched at the 5Cs on Oct. 30, there are currently 114 active 5C student users. These users are in search of support and understanding from one of the most important groups in their lives — their classmates.

Unmasked takes a different approach to mental health help. Combining anonymity and a forum-like display, the app allows students to message anonymously with people from the same campus (or, for the 5Cs, the same consortium) about anything on their mind. 

The meaning behind the name was derived from the anonymous nature of the app. “The app’s anonymity and supportive community allows users to take off their masks and be honest about how they are really feeling,” the website states. 

CEO Sanat Mohapatra started the app while he was a student at Dartmouth College. He noticed that many of his peers didn’t feel comfortable discussing their struggles with on-campus resources. He thought of Unmasked as a solution to allow people to be more open and honest with their emotions. 

“Because there’s no fear that if someone knows that it’s you that’s struggling, they’ll have a worse impression of you,” Mohapatra said, “it’s a space where you can really just open up about how you’ve been feeling and receive support.”

The initiative is led by college students and recent college graduates. There is informal clinical advising, but there is no oversight committee constructed of mental health professionals. Unmasked is now available at 17 schools across the United States, and Mohapatra predicts the app will reach 45 schools by the end of the year. 

Claremont Mental Health Initiative leader Rachel Miller PZ ’20 said she recognized the strength in the accessibility of an app like Unmasked. 

“It’s probably easier. Because when you have to sign up for a therapy appointment, you have to fill out all your information, maybe you have to do a screening, you have to schedule a call. And that’s a lot of work, especially if you feel like you’re maybe more in crisis, but if you just have to download an app and then you can anonymously post whatever, whenever, that’s a lot easier.”

Once the user chooses which school they attend, they are taken to their school’s main forum board. There, they can post a message, respond to another person’s comment or direct message someone anonymously. The app also has a tab for resources, ranging from local on-campus resources to general resources such as hotlines. 

Unmasked’s unique interface comes with its own set of challenges. The anonymous aspect of the app begs the questions: What are the benefits and limits of this mental health resource, and is it adequately prepared to handle emergencies?

I downloaded the app to become familiar with the types of interactions that took place. Taking only a position as an observer, I was surprised by the emotional range of both the posts and the responses. Light material, such as favorite movies or books, seemed to be discussed as much as heavier topics. Although anonymity limited the scope of connections, the words shared between users were written with as much care as if they were talking to a friend.

Each campus has team leaders assigned to monitoring and publicizing the app. 5C team leader Georgia Ryan PO ’23 joined to make mental health help more accessible for her fellow peers.

“I thought that it was cool, because it at least would help start conversations that people weren’t comfortable having with, say, someone face to face, or if they didn’t know where to look or who to talk to, they could just, like, have someone to relate to on the app potentially,” Ryan said.

Team leaders were trained through Relias Academy’s Mental Health First Aid training program. Ryan mentioned specifically that they were not trained for crisis intervention, only for mental health support. As one of the eight team leaders at the 5Cs, Ryan has the responsibility of looking out for content that could be triggering or posts that mention imminent threat.

Mohapatra defined an imminent threat as a situation in which a user is at risk of taking their own life within the 48 hours following the initial posting of the post. They modeled their crisis response policies after Crisis Text Line procedures. In fact, the 10 members on the senior moderation team of Unmasked are all Crisis Counselors. 

If a team leader determines a student is in danger, they will notify the senior moderation team. From that point, a senior moderator will take over the conversation and speak with the individual to determine if they are in imminent danger. From that point, the senior moderator will decide if it is appropriate to make a safety plan with the individual or resort to a data turnover to campus security. 

This app helped in building an online community in the absence of a physical one. However, as the app’s popularity grows, the systems put in place to deal with some of the nuances of anonymity will be tested. 

Claremont-based psychologist Kirsten Bonaventura found that the app would not provide the same kind of support as traditional therapy does. She recognized the strengths found in anonymous messaging but also cautioned against relying on the app entirely in more serious mental health cases. Depending on the situation, Bonaventura recommended using the app in conjunction with therapy. 

“It sounds like it could be a good support … I would hope that they would be able to connect with someone in a more direct way,” Bonaventura said.

Miller saw Unmasked as a piece in the puzzle of mental health resources.

“I kind of see it as one part of fixing the overall issue of students’ having access to mental health resources. And I think the other part is really getting through to administration that these are really difficult times for students,” Miller said.

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