Michael Wenye Li / Sun Assistant Photography Editor

Cornell chapter of nationwide project established this semester, bringing students together virtually on forum.

October 2, 2020

Virtual Platform Aims to Counteract Pandemic-Induced Social Isolation

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Even while physical distancing and online classes keep Cornell students apart, the newly launched mobile app Unmasked is striving to bring students together. Led by Talia Fishman ’22, a group of eight Cornell students started the service last month in the hopes of creating a safe space for students struggling with mental health.

Described as “like Cornell Reddit, but specifically for mental health,” the platform allows students to candidly discuss their struggles with loneliness, isolation and mental illness. By providing a moderated community for individuals to freely post their feelings without judgement, Fishman hopes that Unmasked can help confront the pandemic-induced isolation many currently face.

The Unmasked Project was first started in August by a group of Dartmouth College students, who then reached out to the University’s Empathy Assistance Referral Service with the goal of establishing a chapter on Cornell’s campus. Fishman, a human ecology student, was immediately interested in the project the moment she found out about it.

“I’m really passionate about reducing the stigma around mental health, and I feel that having an app like this where people could talk anonymously about personal issues will kind of help make the mental health issues be more transparent,” Fishman said.

While the name of the project –– which was decided pre-coronavirus –– prompted some to believe that the group encouraged not wearing masks, Fishman clarified that it’s “supposed to symbolize taking off your kind of metaphorical ‘emotional mask’ and being vulnerable.”

So far, the Cornell Unmasked team is marketing the app and moderating the forums, checking to make sure that posts have proper trigger warnings. While users can place trigger warnings they deem appropriate on their posts, moderators can also add them if necessary.

Currently, the team is looking for more moderators and aiming to form a club centered around managing Cornell’s chapter of the Unmasked app.

“I think it is important to expand our team and kind of lighten the burden because some of the posts’ topics are very heavy,” Fishman said.

Those interested in becoming a moderator will have to go through formal training and an interview process; as long as a person is passionate about mental health, they’re a good fit for the team, Fishman said.

“It’s a volunteer run organization of people who are passionate about reducing the stigma surrounding mental health,” Fishman said.

Fishman said that each member has a designated day to moderate the app and maintain a safe space by reviewing and engaging with posts. Members of Cornell Unmasked meet once a week to check in with each other and the leaders of other college divisions to discuss how they can better improve the app’s user experience.

The Unmasked Project at Cornell has “[made] sure that moderators are trained to respond properly” to the difficult content of posts. One of the challenges the broader, intercollegiate organization faces is how to better handle sensitive material — while simultaneously broadening its resources to reach more students across the country.

“They’re continuing to expand to other schools,” Fishman said “So if someone from another school is interested, they could reach out to the Unmasked Project and potentially start a chapter at their school.”

Some of the other schools currently involved in the project are Columbia, Dartmouth, Tulane and Emory.

“COVID-times have brought to light a lot of mental health related issues, and just personal issues related to that,” Fishman said. “And I think that having an outlet to talk about these things, candidly, is very important.”