Unmasked: Dartmouth student builds mental health app for college students

5 min read

We interviewed 2020 Dartmouth grad Sanat Mohapatra founder of Unmasked, a mental health peer support mobile application for college students. Sanat tells us about his mental health journey, reasons for building Unmasked, and plans to grow the app to more campuses across the country…

What inspired you to create Unmasked?

I was inspired to found Unmasked after seeing Dartmouth students reach out for mental health support on the anonymous, social media mobile application, Yik Yak. Students did not receive great responses, as Yik Yak is an entertainment platform. I supported students on the app to the best of my ability. When Yik Yak shut down in 2017, leaving many students without a critical emotional outlet, I decided to create a mental health-focused replacement. I have personally struggled with mental health issues, so I am motivated to prevent future generations of Dartmouth students from struggling as I did.

“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he’ll tell you the truth.”

Oscar Wilde

How has COVID-19 impacted student’s usage of the app?

App usage has spiked! We are averaging around 240 daily active users and we are still only on iOS. Students miss Dartmouth and having easy access to friends, so they are looking to Unmasked as a virtual Dartmouth community. 

What are some themes you’re hearing students express since the pandemic?

There is much to vent about, such as financial aid, the displacement of belongings still on campus, spring classes being online, general boredom at home, family troubles, the loss of spring term, and much more. To give you a sense of the power of these dialogues, below are some anonymous and slightly altered screenshots from the app to preserve privacy.

You’ve taken great care to create a safe environment. What steps have you taken to ensure the platform doesn’t become another Yik Yak?

We have developed an extensive back-end moderation system to prevent the app from devolving into Yik Yak. We have developed the following features: community/moderator flagging, suspending and banning malicious users, deleting off-topic content, direct message user reports. Upon signing in, students are required to agree to a set of Terms & Conditions and Community Guidelines before proceeding. Additionally, there is a comprehensive list of mental health resources available on the app. If moderators ever perceive that a user is threatening themselves or others, they can turn user data over to local law enforcement. At no point, however, does anyone associated with the app have access to personally identifiable information. Finally, the app’s mental health focus has been effective in deterring students seeking the return of Yik Yak.

What are some of the challenges you’ve experienced in developing Unmasked?

The primary challenge in launching Unmasked was finding committed, experienced student software engineers to develop the app without pay. Computer science students are busy with school, and additional involved programming outside of school is taxing. I was fortunate enough to secure an extremely talented, empathetic development team, headed by John Schlachtenhaufen ’20 and Syed Tanveer ’21. Our current challenges are finding students at other colleges to lead Unmasked efforts at their school and marketing to students who are not struggling with their mental health but could be interested in helping other students.

What is your long-term vision for Unmasked? What schools are you hoping to bring this to next?

My long-term vision is to expand Unmasked to schools all over the country. We recently launched the platform at Emory and Williams! I am currently considering expanding to schools in New England, such as the other Ivy League schools, but I am open to expanding to wherever there is interest.  

How do you train student moderators to ensure the app remains a safe and positive experience?

Moderators undergo mental health peer support training provided by the counseling center and the wellness center.

How can students bring Unmasked to their campus?

If you or someone you know is interested in an Unmasked chapter at their college, please let us know at help@unmaskedproject.com! If you or others are interested in checking out a view-only version of the app, please download the app on the iOS App Store (Android still under development) and use the guest code: human.

What was your experience like accessing mental health services in college?

I struggled with my first counselor, he was not helpful, and he did not seem to be invested in me, so I stopped going after a few sessions. I went back after two years and really enjoyed my experience with my second counselor. She was extremely compassionate and wise. Her questions were empathetic and useful. Still, the most effective mental health support for me has come from friends.

How do you feel colleges are handling the increasing demand for mental health care on campus?

I can only really speak to my experience at Dartmouth. The college has increased funding to hire additional counselors, which is a step in the right direction. Still, given our almost $6 billion endowment, I think the college can afford to fund further improvements to campus mental health resources. The college is risk averse, so it is unwilling to fund progressive mental health solutions, such as those in the virtual realm. Since mental illness is stigmatized, meaning many who suffer are invisible, colleges can avoid prioritizing mental health care despite increasing demand. I worry colleges emphasize traditional resources without understanding why students are unwilling to utilize such resources.

What do you feel are some of the largest barriers to access among your peer group? 

I have found that the largest barrier to mental health care access for students is the stigma surrounding mental health. Students are often scared to demonstrate vulnerability and admit that they need help. While many students are capable of dealing with their issues on their own, resources can still be helpful. I have found that many students are skeptical of the value of utilizing resources. Additionally, students struggle with counseling center’s long wait times, its triage focus, and the challenges of navigating an off-campus referral.

What changes do you believe are needed to better support students in accessing mental health services? 

The school can support greater marketing efforts for resources as well as efforts to reduce stigma surrounding mental health. The school should also support new efforts to make mental health resources more accessible, such as Unmasked and The Shrink Space.

The Shrink Space is an off-campus referral service for emerging adults. Our service is free for all young adults to sign up and search for a provider using a number of our robust search filters (real-time availability, in-network insurance, low-fee therapy). We also partner with university counseling centers to help streamline their off-campus referral process. Email us, if you’re interested in bringing TSS to your campus.

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