Oscar Wilde once said, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he’ll tell you the truth.”
The quote above is the inspiration behind “Unmasked,” an app that offers college students a safe space to anonymously speak about mental health, according to founder Sanat Mohapatra.
First launched at Dartmouth College in 2020 before the pandemic hit, the app has since expanded to nearly 40 other universities, including USC. Users create an account to join a community of other students who also attend their school. The app allows students to post their thoughts, as well as comment on or like one another’s posts, all while maintaining anonymity.
Mohapatra, a recent Dartmouth graduate, created the app to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health concerns in college.
“I got the idea to start Unmasked during my freshman year at Dartmouth College, where I noticed that a lot of students were using the anonymous forum Yik Yak to post about their mental health,” Mohapatra said. “I realized that there’s a need for, obviously greater mental health services, but also virtual mental health services specifically, an anonymous one that lets students talk about their problems.”
Because Unmasked allows users to remain completely anonymous, Mohapatra hopes it will help students feel more comfortable having honest conversations about mental health.
“My goal is to encourage people to take off their emotional mask and be vulnerable with each other,” Mohapatra said. “I think normalizing emotional vulnerability and honesty will help a lot of people feel better about what they’re struggling with.”
39 percent of students in college experience a significant mental health issue like depression or anxiety, according to Active Minds, a mental health awareness organization. Additionally, one in five college students reported that their mental health significantly worsened under pandemic-related stress.
Mohapatra saw an uptick in app usage when the pandemic ramped up last March.
“A lot of students are struggling with social distancing, virtual classes, and just kind of an aberration from normal reality,” Mohapatra said. “Not having access to the usual support systems we have leads to students turning to this virtual platform for where they can have access to a community of supportive, non-judgmental students at their school that are willing to listen.”
Paloma Chavez, a senior journalism major at USC, worked on the Unmasked team that helped bring the app to her campus. She described the app as, “kind of like the friend that’s always there when you need them.”
While Unmasked was created to focus on conversations about mental health, Chavez has noticed users using the app to bond over common interests as well.
“The app has kind of changed into a big group chat,” she said. “A lot of people will say stuff like, ‘Hey, I finished all my homework, does anybody have any good TV shows I should binge?’”
“So it doesn’t always have to be about serious topics, even though it totally can be,” she added. “The app creates solidarity and unity in a time where none of us can really do anything but be trapped in our own thoughts.”
Unmasked goes to great lengths to ensure the app is truly anonymous. The company’s website states:
“All personally identifiable information is encrypted according to industry standards.”
The only case in which a user’s data would be released is if the user demonstrates an imminent threat to themselves or others.