Synapps: Making the Invisible Connections Visible

The Knewies Knight News Challenge

Sally Plank | Jacob Podell | Brie Winnega

Project Title: Synapps

Requested Amount: $90,000

Time Frame: Eight month pilot, one additional year for full roll-out

Project Description:

Synapps is a social media app that provides a platform for people coping with mental illnesses to connect. When a user first opens Synapps, s/he will be asked to sign a user agreement stating that no one on the app is a mental health professional and that professional advice should be sought out for serious concerns (this, and other features, address various legal concerns). [1]

Next, s/he will be asked to make a profile. The option to include the following information will exist: (nick)name, age, gender, a short description of themselves (where s/he could choose to disclose any mental illness, clinical or otherwise, that s/he has), and a profile photo. However, a key feature of Synapps will be for the user to be able to choose his/her desired level of anonymity. The only thing a user will be required to have is some sort of username.

From there, 5 tabs will exist: Profiles, Messaging, Newsfeed, Settings, and Get Help. The tabs will be presented at the bottom of the phone or tablet’s screen (presented left to right based on list above).

In the Profiles tab, a user, via geolocation, will be able to see the profiles of other nearby users. The profiles will be displayed as the profile picture being a “tile” on a 3 by x table, with the geographically closest at the top. Addresses or exact locations will not be disclosed. Clicking on a tile gives the user more information about the other person, also revealing options to message, block, or add someone as a friend.

The Messaging tab will be set up as a texting interface. The option to message someone will be available through either the Profiles or Newsfeed tabs.

Whereas Messaging is strictly one-on-one, the Newsfeed tab is for public posts (e.g., articles relating to mental health, personal tips for managing stress, success stories, or simple updates on how a user is feeling) Options to comment and “like” will be there as well.

In the Settings tab, a user will be able to modify his/her profile and manage other options within the app.

The final tab, Get Help, will offer various other ways to connect with professional mental health services (phone numbers, texting, online chats). For example, there will be an option to directly call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Network 1-800-273-TALK (8255) from the app.

Unfortunately, since Synapps is designed to be a social forum, the potential for harassment does exist. To avoid this, the app will have a “robust” enforcement system in place. [1] There will be an option for one user to block another. Additionally, the option to “flag” a post will allow the community of users to make Synapps a safe space. After a post is flagged 3 times, the post is removed and the user is notified and temporarily suspended from the app. If the problem continues, the amount of time a user is suspended increases until eventually said user’s account is deleted.

Unmet Need:

Synapps reaches out to create a platform so that people who suffer or have suffered from mental illness can communicate and interact. Currently, the stories in this population’s narrative are being lost due to the associated stigma, and the community remains invisible. Meanwhile, mental illness is a growing phenomenon; those who have been formally diagnosed have expressed that connecting with others with the same illness has proven extremely beneficial for their overall well-being. There needs to be a space in which those who are suffering or have suffered can connect within their local community.

Across the board, a common symptom with mental illness is isolation. Synapps will allow users to address isolating feelings by expressing their thoughts on the Newsfeed, connecting with local users, and feeling empowered by the stories posted. This app differs from other social media forums because it is oriented toward a public health solution. Synapps would also connect the many success stories in the community that are currently being lost. If someone is uncomfortable being truly public about personal mental illnesses, our app provides him/her with the platform to remain vocal and social.

Interviews (some names have been changed to protect anonymity):

Joanna T.

Gender: Female

Age: 23

Occupation: Nurse

Residence: Ann Arbor, Michigan

Morgan experiences Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder, and depression. She is interested in group therapy but has yet to pursue it due to time constraints. Hesitant due to potential negative reactions, she only discloses her illness to close friends and the occasional patient. She has tried apps to cope (such as apps for better sleep) and used social media to share articles about depression.

Marcus G.

Gender: Male

Age: 20

Occupation: Student

Residence: Flint, Michigan

Austin experiences anxiety and depression. He says sometimes he begins to question whether he truly has the illness. In those moments, having someone close to talk to who also has depression is helpful. Austin was unaware that any apps to help with depression existed.


Lila H.

Gender: Female

Age: 21

Occupation: Student

Residence: New York, New York

Carly was diagnosed with depression and does not disclose her mental illness. When she had to leave school to recover at home, she felt her social life was disrupted. One of the most important aspects to Carly’s recovery was when she connected with a high school friend that was also home from college for depression.

Sebastian B.
Gender: Male

Age: 21

Occupation: Student

Residence: Rochester Hills, Michigan

Noveen was diagnosed with depression in high school and has since made a strong recovery. He discloses his mental illness limitedly. He stated it was helpful to have even one friend who also had depression to act as a “sounding board.” He calls the community of those with mental illness the “invisible community.”

Potential Market:

The target audience for Synapps is a young demographic – people between the ages of 15-35 – and frequent social media users. As demonstrated by the figures below, this age group coincides with Americans who are suffering from various types of mental illness:

  • The average age of onset for depression is 32 years old. [2]
  • “[18%] of U.S. adults suffer from an anxiety disorder, and 75 percent of them experience their first episode of anxiety by age 22.[3]
  • Shown by the table below, 89% of online 18-29 year-olds and 82% of online 30-49 year-olds use social media. [4]

chart did not attach correctly

(Source: Pew Research Center)


Synapps is unique because there are no other anonymous social media apps that prioritize enhancing dialogue and reducing stigma about mental illness. Patients Like Me, an organization with a similar mission, and our closest competitor, maintains a social website that allows users to optionally reveal their medical diagnoses on their profiles, as well as the types of medications and therapies s/he has tried. This website is largely meant for patients to connect and share experiences and the effectiveness of various treatment plans.

Synapps is distinct in that it not only connects patients to one another, but it connects by sharing their entire mental health experience, not just the one s/he experienced medically. It also allows patients who are close to one another to connect with the geolocation feature. Social apps have not yet expanded to enable communication amongst the invisible community of those struggling with mental illness. As the prevalence of mental illness continues to grow, Synapps provides a pool into which people can release their own experiences and connect with others.

Finally, programs connecting people going through all kinds of hardships exists; most are in-person therapy groups. Our idea is innovative because it uses social media to build that network.

Financial Sustainability Plan:

Synapps will be free for consumers to download. We intent to make our project financially sustainable by exploring the following options:

  • Identifying and targeting likely investors for future funding (e.g., National Society of Suicide Prevention)
  • Targeting platforms that statistically raise the most revenue for app developers:

Note: the below data is from a study conducted in 2014: [5]

chart did not attach correctly

(Source: Developer Economics)

  • In-app advertising*
    • Pharmaceutical companies
    • Insurance programs
  • Per-unit royalties
    • Per every installation of Synapps, the specific platform will owe a certain sum of money (to be re-invested into the product).
  • Donations
    • Donations from actual app users.
    • Organizations supporting mental health could donate as well
  • Cost Per Install Networks
    • This involves partnering with a third party company that will distribute Synapps pop-ups in similar applications to prompt those users to try the product. [6]

Our Team:

Our team is ideal to build Synapps because our individual identities have bred empathy toward mental health issues and their relative stigma. Two of our group members have experiences with mental illness while one member identifies as gay, which allows us to analyze the difficulties of coming out from an LGBT* standpoint and apply it to mental health. All this, plus the fact that we are millennials on a college campus, enables us to understand the unmet need for people experiencing mental illness, how consumers use social media, and the qualities of a desirable app.


[1] Amy Reddell, Vice President of Legal Services, Houston Methodist Hospital.

[2] “Depression.” National Institute of Mental Health, n.d. Web. 8 Nov. 2015.

Note: Italics added for emphasis.

[3] “Facts.” Anxiety and Depression Association of America, n.d. Web. 8 Nov. 2015.

[4] “Social Networking Fact Sheet.” Pew Research Center. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Nov. 2015.

[5] Wilcox, Mark. “How to Make Money with Apps.” Developer Economics. N.p., 17 Nov. 2014. Web. 8 Nov. 2014.

[6] Thomas, Carter. “5 Ways Free Apps Make Money.” Blue Cloud Solutions. N.p., 9 Apr. 2012. Web. 8 Nov. 2015.


4 Responses to “Synapps: Making the Invisible Connections Visible”

  1. I volunteer as a crisis counselor with Crisis Text Line and one of the most frequent referrals we give is to because talking to other people struggling with mental health problems is so important and normalizes the experience for a lot of people. Since is entirely online, I’m very interested in the geolocation aspect of Synapps; I think it could be a great, powerful bridge between online and physical communities. I also like that Synapps only requires a username and no other identifying information; a lot of the people that text Crisis Text Line are very concerned about anonymity.

    Also, how did you make the choice of an app versus a website? I actually feel like an app could be more public than a website because you have to download it on your phone and your parents/friends/coworkers/etc could see its icon and ask potentially unwanted questions. On the other hand, a website can just be a URL that you remember and only visit when you feel comfortable.

    I also wondered what kind of moderation training you would provide. Mental health communities are sensitive because of the sometimes seriousness of the topics they discuss. What tools would you give moderators to help them keep conversations constructive? What criteria would you use to pick moderators? Do you think moderators should be proactive about steering conversations or just reactive to posts that have been flagged?

    Lastly, would you moderate private messaging? Depression is rarely rational and people may not feel like they should block someone if they’re agreeing with them that they should die even though the other user is harmful. However, monitoring users’ private messages is somewhat a invasion of privacy.

    I would love to see y’all develop this project further. It seems like a lot more people are willing and want to talk about mental health and this could be a great platform.

  2. Hi, Sally, Jacob and Brie. I agree with Rachel that this is a timely idea with a lot of potential. I really like that you’re thinking about potential partners or sponsors. I think that’s a great way to go with this. As I said in response to many of the other great ideas this term, you probably should talk to a lawyer. But be aware that lawyers are always looking for reasons why you shouldn’t do something. I really hope you move forward with this idea — in part by finding a lawyer who will tell you how to create this community in a way that has the lowest legal risk.

    I think that you can find support for this idea by talking even more about the growing interest in specific support communities.

    Again, great job with this!

  3. We did speak to a lawyer. If you look our sources, number 1 is from Ms. Amy Reddell, Vice President of Legal Services, Houston Methodist Hospital. While she did have some critiques regarding the level of risk (which we incorporated into our proposal), she also thought this was a good idea. She even mentioned how her hospital does something similar for cancer patients, but on a non-electronic basis.

    • Jacob, that’s excellent! Her name on your list of sources didn’t really convey to me that you’d had a conversation with her. The fact that she likes the idea is interesting and worth highlighting. Also, it’s worth saying that you have incorporated her suggestions in the proposal. Would she be willing to serve on an advisory board? Does someone on your team know her?

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