A group of Penn undergraduates introduced a new mobile app to the Penn community that aims to improve students' mental health through anonymous messaging.
Unmasked is a discussion platform that allows students to anonymously share posts relating to their mental health or other personal struggles, to which other students can respond with tips or accounts of their own experiences. The app was first launched by a group of students at Dartmouth College and has since spread to 40 colleges and universities. College junior Maddy Fair worked with app moderators College senior Julia Rubens, and College junior Hannah Erdogan to bring the app to Penn on Feb. 12. Unmasked is currently available for download on the iOS and Android app stores.
Students must sign up for Unmasked with their university email address, which allows them to join their school's discussion community. Users are prompted to create posts by responding to the prompt: "How are you really feeling today?" They can also view and respond to other users' posts and access mental health resources, such as free, confidential 24/7 emergency hotlines, Penn-specific resources, and resources tailored to BIPOC and international students.
Since its launch, 77 students have signed up for Unmasked and 14 posts have been created.
Fair said that the purpose of the app is to allow students to feel like their voices and struggles are being seen, and to break the stigma surrounding mental health among Penn students.
“Our overall goal is to allow students to be more vulnerable with each other and to have honest conversations surrounding their mental health,” Fair said.
The app's launch at Penn comes almost a year after the University began largely virtual instruction due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A Penn Leads the Vote survey of Penn students in November 2020 found that a significant proportion of respondents reported being negatively or very negatively impacted by the pandemic and the remote fall semester.
“Given the pandemic and the restrictions that have resulted from it, there are a lot of students who might not have had experiences with depression or anxiety before who are now experiencing these symptoms,” Fair said. “So, by providing this online supportive yet anonymous community, we are giving very accessible emotional support to these students.”
Fair hopes that Unmasked can serve as an outlet for students to relieve stress and anxiety in a safe and moderated manner, while simultaneously helping their peers navigate their own struggles.
As a trained app moderator, Erdogan works toward this goal by monitoring the feed on the app to reply to posts, direct message users, guide students to resources, and flag potentially triggering or dangerous posts. If a post demonstrates an imminent threat to oneself or others moderators will provide campus security with access to a student's personally identifiable information, according to Unmasked's community guidelines.
Although the moderators' primary objective is to offer help, Erdogan said moderators try to stay away from offering concrete advice, reserving that responsibility for mental health professionals. Instead, moderators often try to relate to the posts with their own experiences, she said.
Rubens, another moderator, said that the team’s short-term goals include increasing awareness of the platform among Penn students as well as increasing app use and engagement in discussions. In the long term, the team hopes to improve the overall well being of students and establish itself as a safe space for the Penn community.
“We’re just hoping that by continuing to use this app and having honest conversations, people won’t feel like they have to hide their stress, depression, or anxiety anymore,” Fair said.
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