Anonymous mental health app for students arrives at USC

A graphic of a hand using a phone, open to a screen with masks and posts.
The app operates by creating message boards for different colleges, where students can log in to talk about their mental health without compromising anonymity. (Photo courtesy of USC Unmasked)

When Sanat Mohapatra was a freshman at Dartmouth College, he noticed many of his peers were utilizing online forums to talk about mental health. Through this, he realized there was a need for an anonymous platform dedicated specifically to discussing mental health issues concerning students. To remedy this problem, Mohapatra launched an app, Unmasked. 

“I realized there’s a need for an anonymous platform that was way more focused on mental health specifically because students weren’t always getting the best responses on existing platforms,” said Mohapatra, who now serves as the app’s CEO. Since Mohapatra began outlining the app’s plans almost four years ago, Unmasked has spread across the country, including to USC, where it launched mid-February. 

The app provides a platform for students to openly talk about their mental health. By allowing students to post comments and directly message others, the app fosters a support network while maintaining the anonymity people may desire when it comes to discussing sensitive issues. 

Unmasked’s founders wanted to narrow their app’s focus specifically to mental health, considering how discussions of mental health are often met with stigma.

“The focus with Unmasked was to bring out that side of the anonymous community and make it much more supportive for people that may feel hesitant to reach out in public, reach out to friends because of the stigma surrounding mental health,” said Jun Tsuru, Unmasked’s chief operating officer. “Unmasked was tailored as a supportive anonymous community for that demographic.”

Paloma Chavez, a senior majoring in journalism and president of Unmasked at USC, initially learned about the app through a friend at Dartmouth. After reflecting on her own struggles with on-campus counseling services and a general trend in mental health issues among her peers, Chavez recognized a need for a protective support system like Unmasked for the USC community.

“A lot of kids our age, whether they’re a freshman and they’re just starting now, or me, I’m 22, have struggled with something,” Chavez said. “The scale doesn’t really exist because it’s all relative to you, and there’s no hierarchy of what is worse. I’ve really noticed at USC that so many kids, my friends and myself included, act like everything’s okay when it’s really not.” 

After getting in touch with Tsuru through her friend, Chavez presented the idea of bringing the app to USC last August. She then worked to assemble a team of students in October to finalize the platform’s launch. 

“We interviewed people, [and] they’re all USC students … and we got a team together,” Chavez said. “Now it’s more submarketing the app and spreading the word for people to use it.” 

Mohapatra collaborated with student volunteers from Dartmouth’s DALI Lab, a space for students to create apps, websites and digital reality projects to design the platform. After developing its initial prototype, Unmasked was finalized and launched in early 2020. 

With a design reminiscent of traditional social media apps, Unmasked forms communities within colleges, maintaining message boards that allow students to interact with classmates. Each campus’ version of Unmasked is run by students of that college. Since its release, it has amassed around 9,000 active users across 45 college campuses, including UCLA and Princeton University. 

Because the app is run by students of a certain college campus, specifically for their own classmates, there emerges a level of community and understanding specific to their platform.

“It creates this really nice sense of camaraderie and unity with your peers,” Chavez said. She referred to Tsuru’s description of the app, summing it up as, “the best friend who’s always there, who never judges you.” 

Shelbi Woodard, a sophomore majoring in business administration, is a growth marketer on USC’s team. Woodward said that while the app is continually disseminating and attracting new users, their focus lies in a much more simple goal.

“We care more about getting the app in the hands of people who need it and are going to use it,” Woodard said. “We’re definitely very intentional with where we’re marketing it and how we’re marketing it.”

As Unmasked expands to more college campuses around the country, the app has received positive feedback from users, with some citing how different aspects of the app — from supportive comments to DMs, conversations and more — profoundly helped them.

“I think we’ve seen a lot of testimonials that are really heartwarming [and] reminds me what a blessing [it is] that we can be helping people out like this,” Tsuru said.

In the future, Mohapatra hopes to expand the app’s reach to an all-school message board to allow students to mingle between colleges. Additionally, Chavez spoke about introducing Unmasked in other spaces like workplaces, emphasizing the fact that mental health issues can persist beyond college.

“The first step to Unmasked is unmasking that persona or facade that you’ve put on throughout the day and telling people how you really feel … and just creating a sense of normalcy,” Chavez said. “With Unmasked, teaching everyone that, ‘I’m feeling the same way, you’re not alone, and I’m here for you whenever you need me,’ creates a lot less scary of a conversation.”