As an undergraduate at Princeton, Rob Morris had a background in social science and psychology but no experience coding. As a graduate student at 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 up, largely due to a website called Stack Overflow, where he could crowdsource coding problems, and strangers responded for free. Morris wondered if the same process could be used for mental health.
Since the pandemic, global anxiety and depression have increased by 25%, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Meanwhile, over 25 million Americans live in an area where there are not enough mental-health service providers to meet demand. According to a 2019 study, 80% of teenagers said they’ve used their phone to look for emotional help online.
In 2015, Morris started building a platform for mental health, called Koko, where users could send supportive messages to people who needed mental health support. Morris and his partners Kareem Kouddous and Fraser Kelton raised venture capital funding and launched Koko as a startup. They also developed Kokobot, an artificial intelligence that could moderate conversations on Koko and identify anyone in crisis. Within a few years, Kokobot had two million users.
“At the time, using the internet for mental health support was still controversial,” Morris says, and not a sustainable business model, he discovered. “With VC funding you need a profound and powerful opportunity to grow and get revenue and we weren’t seeing that,” he says. The artificial intelligence that Kokobot used to identify someone in crisis could also be repurposed for content moderation, such as finding hate speech. Koko shifted to internet safety and content moderation.
“It was depressing,” Morris adds. “I’d spent years of my life devoted to digital health, and we had this system that was providing a ton of impact, and we had to drop it.”
Koko was acquired by Airbnb in 2018, although the founders were able to retain the name. In late 2020, Morris and Kouddous decided to relaunch Koko as a nonprofit. Today, users who search for content about, say, self-harm or “thinspiration” are redirected to a page with resources, such as crisis-helpline numbers, as well as an invitation to use Koko.
Koko offers users a range of options, including walking them through how to use a crisis line and providing information on any fears they might have, plus courses on mental health issues.
Its most popular option, however, is the ability to talk to a peer. Users send a message, and while they wait, they are asked to reply to another message that someone else sent. “Writing a short message of hope to someone else really helps redirect people,” Morris said.
Koko doesn’t collect identifying data, but it does have processes in place to ensure that users don’t receive malicious messages. (Morris prefers to keep those processes confidential so malicious users can’t game them.) To date, Koko has worked with platforms, such as Tumblr, Twitch, and the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, and has collaborated with researchers at Harvard and Stanford, among others.
As consumers shift more toward telehealth, healthcare providers will need to be equipped to help people in crisis online. Providers “might not have planned for someone dealing with depression or suicide,” Morris adds. “We have the ability to detect and intervene in a way that respects the user.”
Ultimately, Morris wants to change the way the internet responds to users who need mental health help. “When you search for a flight on Google, you get directed to these options that make you instantly buy a flight,” he says. “The interface is beautiful. But when you look up mental health, it’s not great. I want to do for mental health what Google did for flights.”