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A support group in your phone. Healing for mental illness comes one text at a time.

As rates of depression rise, a Tampa man launches Cope Notes, a service that sends out an uplifting message every day to people struggling with stress, anxiety, and negative thoughts.
Johnny Crowder at home in Tampa, where he founded Cope Notes, a service that sends uplifting daily text messages to people manage their mental and emotional health. “People would rather text their friends than talk to them about something difficult,” he said. “Some of the texts are prompts, and while it’s not necessarily a two-way conversation, we want the platform to foster independence. The goal is not to be something people rely on forever.”
Published Feb. 22

Johnny Crowder used to have a negative outlook on the world.

He grew up in what he described as an abusive household. He was diagnosed with a slew of mental illnesses during his formative years, from bipolar disorder to obsessive compulsive disorder. It was easy for him to feel down about himself.

"I realized how I was thinking was contributing to my struggles," said Crowder, a 26-year-old Tampa native. "But I couldn't climb out of it."

So he started filling sticky notes with positive, affirmative messages, and leaving them around his house. On one note, he remembers penciling, "You deserve to spend time with people who care about you."

It made a difference. For just a few seconds a day, he'd feel better. But eventually the notes became commonplace, and their effect seemed to wear off.

So he decided to try it another way. This time, by sending uplifting text messages to his friends to see how they reacted.

"The first text, I sent to about 32 friends in my contacts, with the same message. Nearly everyone responded," he said. "They interpreted it differently based on their own lives, but I was surprised to see so many of them replied with 'How did you know?' Like I knew they were going through something."

That's how Crowder founded Cope Notes.

It's a text messaging service aimed at those going through a difficult time. Every day, a Cope Notes user will get a random message, usually something uplifting, but it could also be advice about an exercise to try or tips to boost positivity. Users are encouraged to text back, and to use the thread as their own "digital journal," Crowder said.

"People would rather text their friends than talk to them about something difficult," he said. "We wanted to create something that was optionally interactive. Some of the texts are prompts, and while it's not necessarily a two-way conversation, we want the platform to foster independence. The goal is not to be something people rely on forever."

RELATED: When suicide threats come calling: 'I try to make a connection.'

Crowder's timing, it seems, is important. Depression diagnosis rates rose 33 percent from 2013 to 2016, according to the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association's Health of America Report. Children and millennials seem to be the most at risk, with diagnosis rates spiking by 63 percent and 47 percent, respectively, over the same period.

Women, too, seem to suffer from depression more often, with diagnosis rates that are double those of men, according to the Blue Cross report.

What's more, the report said, people with depression are nearly 30 percent less healthy on average than those without it, and 85 percent also suffer from other chronic health conditions.

Cope Notes launched quietly nearly a year ago from Crowder's South Tampa home, and now has about 1,000 users. Crowder said they range in age from 14 to 40. He's the one writing the messages that are delivered each day, but they are reviewed by a panel of mental health counselors and professors, public relations professionals and privacy compliance officials.

The service costs $9.99 a month, or $8.99 a month for an annual subscription. There's also an option of a one-week free trial.

A recent example of a Cope Notes message: "When you hold the door open for someone, and they step on your foot, you should still be proud. Their bad decision doesn't invalidate your good one."

Another one said, "The entire world was changed by people just like you. Normal folks who didn't think they were just about to change the world. Don't underestimate yourself."

And this: "Coloring for 15 minutes can help clear your mind and soothe anxiety. It may sound childish, but how do you think adult coloring books became best sellers?"

Cope Notes is not meant to replace therapy or clinical treatment, but it can supplement it, said Kristin Kosyluk, an assistant professor in the Department of Mental Health Law & Policy at the University of South Florida. She said Crowder and his text messaging platform are also good examples of where mental health care is headed.

"We're moving toward a recovery model and away from a medical model," Kosyluk said. "It gives someone like Johnny, who has been through the system and has personal experience, the authority and credibility to provide support to others."

Kosyluk cited the "Alcoholics Anonymous" community — where people who have suffered from the same afflictions, comfort and support one another — as a good example of a recovery model.

"Cope Notes has that piece to it because Johnny is open about his experiences," she said. "A lot of times, people are seeking help in a clinical setting and not finding support in their own communities. A simple text message that somebody receives, that's an intervention being delivered in the moment."

Kosyluk is working with Crowder to potentially collect research data from Cope Note users in the future.

ALSO READ: Pediatricians are the new allies in the battle against teen depression. They can spot it early.

Before becoming a mental health activist in 2011, speaking about his survival story to community groups and schools, Crowder tried just about anything that would help as he struggled with depression.

"I tried meditation apps, the Tony Robbins 'walk on coals' type self-help people. You name it, I was hungry for anything that would help me cope with what was happening to me."

But what bothered him most about the programs he tried were the promises of an overnight cure.

"It takes a long time to feel better. There's no flip of a switch in your brain that makes everything normal," he said. "It takes a lot of tiny steps and nudges in the right direction over time to heal and come up with healthy coping practices."

Contact Justine Griffin at jgriffin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.

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