Tattooed man crouching with head down and hands behind head

Johnny Crowder, founder Cope Notes

Digital mental health services have been on the rise for several years. Apps like BetterHelp, Talkspace, and Ginger offer virtual mental health services for users from therapy sessions with a licensed professional, to chatbots that can help offer regular support. 

Now there’s a new service that’s offering a different type of mental health support to users. Last year Cope Notes, a peer support-based, digital mental health platform received government approval to provide Orange County, FL residents with daily support, paid for in full by CARES Act funding. In a matter of weeks, as word spread and demand grew, more governments, businesses, and schools from coast to coast began lining up to follow suit.

Launched in 2018 by suicide attempt survivor and rock musician Johnny Crowder, Cope Notes is a digital subscription service that uses daily text messages to improve mental and emotional health. Their positive psychology-based, trauma-informed messages contain psychology facts, exercises, and journaling prompts that train the brain to think in healthier patterns.

In his moving TEDx Talk, Crowder opened up about how his experiences with childhood trauma and mental illness have fostered a passion for advocacy. Over the past decade, he’s partnered with organizations like the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and Mental Health America to fight stigma and shine a light on taboo topics like self-harm and abuse. 

In a few short years, Cope Notes has exchanged more than half a million text messages with thousands of users worldwide. Each text is carefully crafted by peers with firsthand experience overcoming hardship, trauma, or loss. Then, they’re reviewed by a panel of mental health professionals before being delivered at random times to facilitate the formation of new mental habits, thought patterns, and neural pathways in the brain.

“Peer support isn’t just for people living with a diagnosis. Everyone with a brain needs to prioritize mental health,” Crowder says. “Especially during a time like this.”

As the world battles against the COVID-19 pandemic, and the United States faces political unrest, that assertion is proving more relevant than ever. According to Boston University’s Catherine Ettman, a recent study showed that rates of depressive symptoms were “higher than what we’ve seen after other large-scale traumas like September 11th, Hurricane Katrina, and the Hong Kong unrest.”

Unsurprisingly, Cope Notes’ growth has spiked dramatically in the past year, amassing users in nearly 100 countries around the world. CNN even did a recent spotlight on Crowder’s work, spotlighting the fact that in the midst of significant trauma, peer-led resources like Cope Notes are essential to rebuilding the mental wellness, stamina, and resilience we’ll need to face the year ahead.

I spoke with Crowder recently about the need he’s seeing for digital mental health services. 

Shama Hyder: What’s the main reason you see for users signing up for Cope Notes?

Johnny Crowder: Many of us ignore or bury our feelings, looking the other way and hoping they won’t be there tomorrow. What we’re seeing now is a result of pent-up feelings that we haven’t dealt with: anger, fear, anxiety, depression, and even loneliness. An unwatched pot will always boil over, and as a nation, I think we’ve reached a boiling point. Cope Notes is actively helping people identify and cope with these complex feelings of unrest in healthy ways.

Hyder: How does Cope Notes use digital systems to support mental health? 

Crowder: From content and delivery to prevention and intervention, every aspect of Cope Notes is designed to facilitate the formation of newer, healthier neural pathways in the brain. Each text is intended to interrupt negative thought patterns in real time, teaching the brain to default to healthier patterns instead. Users can text back at any time, treating the thread as a digital journal to improve emotional IQ and independence. Mental health crises are outsourced to trained counselors, but because people rely on Cope Notes for daily support rather than crisis services, these situations are extremely rare.

Hyder: What challenges do you think will be present for 2021, as we all work towards addressing this generational trauma?

Crowder: The biggest challenges are awareness and education. Most people don’t even think the topic of mental health applies to them. We have to take a long, hard look at what we’ve been living through, assess the damage, and get real with ourselves and the people around us about how it’s affecting us. You can’t deal with trauma until you acknowledge that it exists.

America has been turning a blind eye to mental health on a systemic level as well. Providers are under-funded and under-staffed. The demand for services far outpaces supply, and the powers that be will need to make some serious investments if they want to see real change.

Digital systems are making services that were previously inaccessible—whether because of cost, transportation, a lack of therapists in one’s area, or other reasons—available to exponentially more people, as in the case of Crowder’s app. As these systems continue to evolve into more sophisticated delivery models, we may find ourselves entering a new era of mental wellness.

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Roland Millaner