For many people with mental health issues, adhering to a treatment program and not backsliding in the six days and 23 hours between therapy sessions is a daunting task.
Johnny Crowder, founder of Cope Notes, realized that difficulty through self-experience. People close to Crowder suggested self-help books or logging into a mental wellness mobile app, seemingly simple solutions that can feel overwhelming to someone with mental health issues.
“You’re asking a depressed person to muster up the motivation to improve their mental health when I can’t even get out of bed,” he said. “I kind of faced that problem and was frustrated that there wasn’t something to help me with that.”
So, Crowder created a solution. He launched the mental health support service Cope Notes in February of 2018. What began as Crowder texting friends daily messages to help get them through the day has turned into a business with 23,671 users in 97 countries. Crowder’s bootstrapped startup has now exchanged over 1.4 million texts, offering relatable support, tips and prompts while allowing users to open up and speak freely with real people.
The surrounding community is taking notice. In January, Cope Notes received the People’s Choice Award during the Startup of the Year Summit. Crowder’s service has also secured over 10 local government contracts, most recently through five Hillsborough County mental healthcare providers.
Crowder, 29, has an affinity for tattoos and a daily wardrobe consisting of jeans and t-shirts. He went to college for psychology and said that while he feels at home in the mental health space, interacting with local governments is still a foreign concept.
“But actually, the government is our number one customer right now,” he said. “We serve governments in a way that I didn’t anticipate we would be able to because you and I both know that governments aren’t known for being like really forward-thinking, tech-savvy and proactive.”
Offering unpredictably-timed, proactive support is at the heart of the Cope Notes mission. Rather than waiting for someone to make a conscious decision to log into an app, watch a video module or book an appointment, Cope Notes sends one or two texts a day based on a user’s preferences. The messages are unique for each subscriber, peer-based, private and sent at randomized times to interrupt negative thought patterns.
“Having a better attitude can make us less physically susceptible to illness,” read a recent text. “Isn’t that wild? The common cold is literally allergic to optimism.”
Crowder believes there is a “sweet spot” in how many texts are appropriate to send. He said that providing five or six messages a day leads to people expecting the notes rather than training new neural pathways. He added that not becoming so invasive that people ignore the messaging is also critical.
The daily support Cope Notes provides would have “definitely” helped him on his journey through treatment, Crowder said, beginning with a reduction in the self-stigma commonly associated with mental health issues.
“I was judging myself for what I was going through,” said Crowder. “I was disincentivizing my own help-seeking behaviors, which was just keeping me sick for longer.”
Like many people suffering from mental health issues, Crowder said he tended to isolate, making things worse. He said Cope Notes could have provided consistent daily support he lacked from other places while creating a sense of self-love for seeking further levels of care.
Crowder called the recent publicity, partnerships and his award at Startup of the Year validating to a young tech entrepreneur.
“It made me feel like the last – if you include the beta versions of this – like six years of my life have not been wasted,” he said. “They’ve been put towards something that’s really resonating with people.”
While that is encouraging for Crowder as a founder, he said the recognition from his peers also bodes well for conversations on mental health within the technology space. He noted a tendency within the tech industry to make things needlessly complex when all a consumer wants is a product that works.
Crowder added that Cope Notes’ sole reason for existing is to make people feel better than before they started using the service. His recent success makes him hopeful that the tech industry is not losing sight of the human experience.
“Which is the most important part,” said Crowder. “Like, are we actually helping live better lives?”
Crowder recently moved to Clearwater, and he hopes Pinellas County follows Hillsborough’s lead by offering Cope Notes to residents through different wellness programs. He said the $9 monthly cost is nothing in a government’s budget but could be prohibitive for underserved populations suffering from mental health issues.
Data supports the benefits provided by Cope Notes, as a recent University of South Florida study showed a statistically significant reduction in depression, anxiety and stress in users after 30 days.
“They quantitatively concluded that Cope Notes contributed to these outcomes,” said Crowder. “I teared up when they were telling me; it’s like a dream come true.
“What you spent all these years building is actually working.”
Crowder is also an accomplished musician and began touring at 19. He spends about six months of the year on the road, which led to meeting Brian “Head” Welch, guitarist for the Grammy-winning metal band Korn. In May of 2020, after learning about Crowder’s startup, Welch offered to buy Cope Notes subscriptions and give them away to fans for Mental Health Awareness Month.
For the second time, the platinum-selling guitarist is once again offering Cope Notes subscriptions to fans throughout May.
“We signed a contract with Korn before we signed a contract with Pinellas County,” said Crowder with a laugh. “It’s really heartwarming to see … we might be the only vendor that works with county governments and metal bands.”
Crowder hopes that come June 1, the social media posts, hashtags and email blasts promoting employee mental wellness continues. He said his goal is that after the “little 30-day sprint of good PR,” people and businesses will feel a renewed sense of commitment to behavioral health.
“I want to see action,” said Crowder. “If May is raising awareness, June is taking action.”
For more information on Cope Notes, visit the website here.