Cocoa Nonprofit Founder Helps People Cope With Mental Health

As an undergraduate at Princeton, Rob Morris had a background in the social sciences and psychology, but no coding experience. As a graduate student in MIT’s Media Lab, Morris struggled with depression. He started falling behind and eventually had to take a leave of absence. When he came back to MIT, he was able to catch on mainly because of a website called Stackoverflow, where he could crowdsource coding problems, and have strangers answer for free. Morris wondered whether the same process could be used for mental health.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), since the pandemic, there has been a 25% increase in global anxiety and depression. Meanwhile, more than 25 million Americans live in an area that doesn’t have enough mental-health service providers to meet demand. According to a 2019 study, 80% teens Said he has used his phone to seek emotional help online.

In 2015, Morris began building a platform for mental health called Cocoa, where users could send helpful messages to people who needed mental health support. Morris and his partners Karim Koudous and Fraser Kelton raised venture capital funds and launched Cocoa as a startup. They also developed an artificial intelligence, called Cocobot, that can moderate conversations on Cocoa and identify whether someone is in distress. Within a few years, Cocobot had two million users.

“At the time, using the Internet for mental health support was still controversial,” Morris says.

However, providing mental health support was not a sustainable business model. “With VC funding you need a deep and powerful opportunity to grow and get revenue and we weren’t looking for that,” Morris says. The artificial intelligence that Cocobot used to identify someone in distress could also be used for content moderation, such as hate speech detection. Cocoa shifted to Internet security and content moderation.

“It was disappointing,” Morris says. “I had devoted years of my life to digital health, and we had this system that was providing a ton of impact and we had to give it up.”

Cocoa was acquired by Airbnb in 2018, although the founders were able to retain the name. At the end of 2020, Morris and Koudas decided to relaunch cocoa as a non-profit. Today, users who search for content about self-harm or “thinkspiration” are redirected to a page with resources, such as crisis helpline numbers, as well as an invitation to use Cocoa. Cocoa offers users a variety of resources, such as walking them through how to use a crisis line and providing information about any fears they may have, and offering courses on mental health.

However, its most popular option is the ability to talk to a colleague. Users send a message, and while they wait, they are also asked to reply to another message that someone else has sent. “Writing a little message of hope for someone else really helps to redirect people,” Morris said.

Cocoa does not collect identification data, but has processes in place to ensure that users do not receive malicious messages. (Morris prefers to keep those processes confidential so that malicious users don’t game him.) To date, Coco has worked with platforms like Tumblr, Twitch, and the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, and collaborated with researchers at Harvard and Stanford. Is. other.

As consumers turn more to telehealth, healthcare providers will need to be equipped to help people in distress online. “Providers may not have planned for someone dealing with depression or suicide,” Morris says.

Ultimately, Morris wants to change the way the Internet responds to users who need mental health support. “When you search for a flight on Google, you are directed to these options that force you to buy the flight right away,” he says. “The interface is beautiful. But when you look at mental health, it’s not great. I want to do the same for mental health that Google did for flights.”

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