Building a Healthier Brain One Text at a Time with Guest Johnny Crowder

There are those moments when you find yourself having a bad day and an unexpected positive text has a way of making things a little bit better. This week the Mental Health Mamas are joined by Johnny Crowder, founder and CEO of Cope Notes, a text based mental health platform that provides daily support to users in nearly 100 countries around the world. Tune in to hear why Johnny started Cope Notes, how a simple text can change your brain and why mental health resources are like toothbrushes.

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Serena: Hey Everyone, I’m Serena.

Tina: And I’m Tina and we are the Mental Health Mamas.


Serena: Welcome to No Need to Explain, we are so glad you’re here.

Tina: First, as always, a quick disclaimer.

Serena: We come to you NOT as mental health professionals or experts in the field, but rather as parents with lived experience who are on a mission to normalize the conversation around mental health.

Tina: If you or someone you love is experiencing a mental health crisis, please seek professional support. You’ll find a variety of resources in our show notes and on our website,

Serena: So I’m curious, Tina, if you’ve ever found yourself having maybe a bad day and then received a text message that you were not expecting that perhaps shifted things for you in some way?

Tina: Yes. As you know, connection is my go-to for changing my mood, so absolutely. Sometimes that’s even from you, Serena.

Serena: Mmm. So there can be something really powerful in that tiny little connection, right? And in fact, our work in supporting parents, texts are often a way we let someone know that we’re just thinking of them and that they’re not alone.

Tina: Absolutely. So today we are excited to have a guest with us who developed a tool called Cope Notes that supports this very concept of something as simple as a text message really making a difference for people.

Serena: Johnny Crowder is a suicide and abuse survivor, TEDx speaker, touring musician, mental health and sobriety advocate, and the Founder & CEO of Cope Notes, a text-based mental health platform that provides daily support to users in nearly 100 countries around the world. Johnny, welcome to the podcast!

Johnny: Good morning Mamas!

Tina: We love the idea that Cope Notes was developed out of your own experience, we love the lived experience so…OK, let me qualify that. We love the lived experience and sometimes those things are not particularly positive but I love when they turn around and become something positive. So let’s do a little bit of, you know, share with our listeners a bit of your story.

Johnny: So, I’m trying to figure out a way to do this in like, you know, how do you put thirty years into thirty seconds? But I will say that when I was growing up I was exhibiting symptoms of mental illness for basically my entire childhood but I wasn’t really aware of what I was supposed to do about it and I wasn’t really quick to acknowledge that and I don’t think my family was either. Everyone was just kind of looking the other way for a long time. And then by the time I was actually in treatment, which took a long time and my mom basically like twisting my arm and volunteering me to go to treatment for the millionth time, I finally went. And I was having a lot of trouble adhering to treatment so that’s kind of part of the idea for where Cope Notes came from.

You know, let’s say I have, you know, most of my sessions were not great with my clinicians but then if I did have a good one, I would leave that office and I would spend six days and twenty-three hours out in the elements getting worse. So I wanted to create something that could kind of interrupt those negative thoughts on days when I wasn’t in treatment, you know?

Serena: Mmm. Yeah. Absolutely. Yeah. So one of the goals of our podcast from the beginning has been about normalizing the conversation around mental health. Mental health and our personal stories, we know, are not always easy to talk about, and we know that the more that we have these conversations with others, the easier it becomes. So we’re wondering if you can talk about your experiences with sharing your own story, I mean, you’ve stood on the TedX stage and talked about your own story, but perhaps, you know, sort of those everyday moments. What has it been like for you?

Johnny: Well, at first, you know, when I speak at conferences and stuff, people come up and say, like, oh, I wish I could tell everyone about what I’m going through, but it sounds so scary. I’m like, I didn’t start out on a stage. This is not where I started.

Serena: Right.

Johnny: …the sharing what I was going through. It actually, you know, early on I was very, very secretive about what I was going through. I didn’t want to tell my friends that I was in therapy, I didn’t want to tell them that I was taking medication. And then I started realizing that if I was talking about what I was going through with someone I didn’t know as well, it felt like the stakes were lower. So for example, if I was sitting on a bus and I told someone next to me, you know, I’m taking anti-psychotic medication, they’d be like, OK, whatever. Like I don’t even know you. I don’t know why you’re telling me this. And it felt like such a small deal to them that it made it easier for me to do, kind of transition into peer support groups with people I didn’t already know. And then doing public advocacy in front of rooms full of people that I didn’t know. That almost felt easier than telling a friend or family member because if I told a friend or family member, they might look at me differently but if I told a stranger, they don’t know who I am anyway, you know?

Tina: Yeah, that’s super interesting. I guess I never thought of that before and it makes total sense. It makes total sense. So let’s switch gears a little bit here and talk about Cope Notes. As we mentioned at the beginning, it’s a text-based mental health platform that provides daily support. I love that idea that you needed that little hurdle help, right, during the week because it is a once a week. Therapy is a once a week thing. So what do Cope Notes look like and how does it work?

Johnny: Maybe one of my favorite things about Cope Notes is that using it requires so little time and effort and especially when I was younger, I wasn’t the type of teenager that’s like, man, I’m gonna wake up and I’m gonna do my self-care workbook and then I’m gonna meditate and then I’m gonna drink a green smoothie and no. Dude, when I was in high school, I was like, I don’t want to talk about my mental health. I don’t want to journal. I don’t want to read anything. I wish you would just drop it and leave me alone. I was very…I just didn’t want to handle it and Cope Notes makes it really, really easy and palatable to take a look at these things that we bury, for just a few seconds here and there.

So I always tell people what it actually looks like is, you know, you’re going about your day and let’s say you’re sitting at a traffic light and you are so frustrated because the light turned green, you sat there, you inched forward and the light turned red. But everything is so jammed up that you just, you’re like, wow, we went through a whole light cycle. I didn’t move my car. I’m so frustrated. I’m gonna be late. My boss is gonna yell at me. And then your phone buzzes and you think, now what? What the heck does somebody else need from me? And you look at your phone and it’s a text message from Cope Notes that contains, you know, let’s say it’s a psychology fact or a journaling prompt or an exercise, some type of like, positive psychology content, just a couple sentences. And you know that that text was written by a peer with lived experience, someone just like you, not some snooty doctor wagging their finger at you saying, like, here’s what you should be doing. It’s a real, regular peer with lived experience who’s saying, this is what I wish someone would have said to me when I was going through this. You read that text message and you just take twenty seconds, fifteen seconds, thirty seconds, to read that text, reflect for a second and all of a sudden, that simple little text has interrupted your negative thought pattern for long enough to rob it of it’s momentum.

And while that may sound powerful, what’s really powerful on the neuroscience side is what happens when you do that over and over and over again and over the course of days and weeks and months and years. Your brain actually learns to challenge negative thoughts naturally and catalyze positive thoughts on its own. So this is a brain training tool that reaches out to you. You don’t have to remember to use it and you don’t have to set aside time for it.

Serena: That is fantastic. Thank you for sharing that and you know, we love the idea of the…that it’s peer supported. Obviously Tina and I are all about the peer support. We need the professionals too, absolutely.

Johnny: Oh yeah.

Serena: You know, that once a week, you’re going and you’re checking in with a professional and then we’ve got something else in between.

Tina: Yeah. And Serena, we talk all the time about our toolboxes, right?

Serena: Mmhm.

Tina: We have different tools that help us with different things and therapy is one of those tools, perhaps for you and it sounds like Cope Notes is definitely a tool for your toolbox because as you said, there is science behind training your brain to be more positive or to…you know I almost think about it as like, yeah, that one second meditation, right? Here, I’m in the moment, I’m listening to something positive. Awesome, right? Yeah. Totally. So tell us, just a couple of…so give us some examples of a couple of these texts. What might they say?

Johnny: I bet you wish I would do that!

Tina: Oh darn, you’re not gonna do it?

Johnny: No, I will. But I always tell people before I read anything, so we get this question a lot and that’s why at the top of our website we have, like, a full week of Cope Notes texts that people can scroll through and see what the content is like. But I always warn people, half of what makes Cope Notes great is the content, like, the literal words we are texting you. That is very powerful. But the other half of what makes Cope Notes effective is the timing, the interruption. So I’m reading a text to you and your brain already knows it’s coming. It’s not being surprised or interrupted. You might think, oh, that’s kind of neat but if it’s really interrupting your day, it feels completely different. So let me scroll through and find a text that I’ve received recently that I think will make sense out of context. Hmmm.

Serena: And if you don’t want to give us a specific, that’s OK. I mean you could talk about…

Johnny: No, I really should.

Tina: OK!

Johnny: So here’s one that I got that I liked quite a bit. And keep in mind, they’re designed to feel very casual, very informal, easy to understand and they’re not supposed to feel clinical even though they actually are. The back end is clinical but the front end is supposed to feel really simple. So this is a text that I got that you probably wouldn’t even know has a clinical backing. I got a text recently that said, “Wear whatever you want tomorrow without worrying about pleasing anyone else or looking a certain way. Seeing your favorite outfit in your reflection in the mirror can work wonders for your self-esteem.” And there is science behind that. Looking into a mirror and seeing yourself dressed comfortably in items of clothing or colors that make you feel confident, actually does change your self-reported self-esteem. So there is science behind it but the text isn’t supposed to feel sciency. It’s supposed to feel simple.

Serena: Mmhm. Yeah. That’s great. I love it. And you know, to me, the idea, and you can correct me if I’m wrong, these are not texts that are telling someone that they have to go do something, but it’s more invitational and supportive, if that makes sense.

Johnny: Yeah. And there are people who will use Cope Notes for weeks or even months before they actually start doing the exercises or answering the journaling prompts because it does…like, everybody has self-stigma to an extent. Like I don’t walk around, even though I do public advocacy, I don’t walk around with a t-shirt on that says like, “I live with bi-polar” you know? Like there’s some part of me that still has some kind of like embarrassment or shame that’s like embedded deep down that prevents me sometimes from fully engaging with a resource. So there are people who will sign up for Cope Notes and for the first month, they’re like, yeah, it’s OK. I don’t really pay attention to it. And then like the second or third month they send us an email and they’re like, woah, finally it wore down my self-stigma. I’m actually participating and I’m actually seeing the difference because Cope Notes can’t so the heavy lifting for you. It can prompt your brain to do those things but it’s half and half, right? You need to actually participate to see the fruit.

Tina: Yeah, so I think of my teenager at the time and that makes total sense to me. It makes total sense to me. It’s a little bit like…I’m not sure if you’re ever heard this but you have to offer a kid, like green beans fourteen times before they actually eat them.

Johnny: Yep.

Tina: I feel like that’s the idea of it, right? That we keep introducing these tools that might be helpful and I imagine that Cope Notes are persistent so that’s good.

Johnny: Yeah. So part of the reason why I wanted to make it every day was because I was having a conversation, actually with a mom that I worked with at my day job before I pursued Cope Notes full time and she was saying that she wants to support her kid, a teenager, and then she would kind of lose steam. Like she’d say, OK, I want to text my teenager once a day or something. Or I’m gonna check in with her once a day and then after being disrespected or ignored or having a door slammed on her, she would like not do it the next day.

Tina: Yeah.

Johnny: Because she would be like, well I feel burned or I forgot or I have a lot going on. And unfortunately what that reinforces is this idea that support is conditional and so there are teenagers growing up thinking, like, you know, my mom says that she loves me or supports me but then if I slam the door then she doesn’t talk to me for a day and they learn that conditional support structure. And so I wanted to create something that would be far more consistent than a person. Because if it takes fourteen introductions of green beans for someone to actually take a bite, a parent will probably lose patience after like four or seven or eleven introductions. But if Cope Notes is run by an algorithm, then it can introduce proverbial green beans every single day without fail for years and maintain a level of consistency that an individual never could even with the best intentions.

Serena: Yeah. That’s awesome. So tell us all the details. How do people sign up, the cost, things like that?

Johnny: Yeah, when we…so signing up is so easy. You can literally go to and you click subscribe and you type in your phone number. So it is like, there’s not a lot of steps. It’s very, very simple. And also for…we do have gift subscriptions so I actually originally created those for parents where you can give a subscription to your child but you can also give one to your spouse or your co-worker or friend, whoever.

But as far as pricing goes, when we set out to build this, we said, you know, we took a look at the marketplace and we saw some digital health resources were, you know, $150 bucks a month, $270 bucks a month, $340 bucks a month. We even saw some that were $450 dollars a month and we were like, oh shoot, like a lot of people don’t have that to spare right now.

Tina: Right.

Johnny: So how, basically, and I know you’re not really supposed to say “cheap” when you’re talking about your own business, but we kind of set out to say how cheap can we make this? Like how affordable can we make this for individual people? We found this sweet spot where it’s right around, actually, just under ten dollars a month, where we were like, you know, the likelihood of someone having an extra nine dollars at the end of the month to put towards, you know, real, tangible change in their mental and emotional health is much higher than someone having a $450 dollar bill laying around at the end of the month.

Tina: Mmhm.

Johnny: So part of our approach was like, how do we make, this was kind of our moon shot, was how do we make a full year of daily mental health support cost less than one therapy session. So I remember when I told that mom that I’m telling you about, the one that I worked with, when I told her that I was gonna make Cope Notes like 100 bucks for the year or something, she started crying. I was like, oh no, is that too expensive? Did I totally screw this up? And she…I was like, why are you crying? And she said a discovery session with a therapist for my daughter was 150 dollars. And so you’re saying that she can have support for an entire year for less than I just spent on a 45 minute session with someone she didn’t even like? And I was like, woah. So that really put it into perspective for me.

Tina: Yeah. So what about something we haven’t asked you about. What about the age target for these? Do you have a certain… I mean, who is the appropriate audience for your Cope Notes?

Johnny: We serve lots of adults. I think there’s a misconception that we only serve youth. We do serve plenty of adults and as far as youth goes, we recommend middle school and up.

Tina: OK, great.

Johnny: So you might have like a whip smart elementary schooler that knows neuroscience terms which is awesome but I would probably think that like 6th grade and up is where you’re going to see like the comprehension level, like the reading level required for some of our texts. They’re not super complex but we do send some sciency ones every once in a while.

Tina: Yeah, cool. OK. Awesome.

Serena: Yeah and this is just such a fantastic thing, you know, all the time but I have to say right now in our country, where we are so lacking the professional resources and there are so many families who are sitting on wait lists, waiting for therapy. And again, not a substitution but it’s something more, right, that they can be doing in the midst of all this.

Johnny: Mmhm.

Tina: Yeah, for sure. While you wait. While you wait. So Johnny, you are clearly a very busy person. You’re working really hard to help others feel better. So our golden question, how are you taking good care of yourself?

Johnny: I wish somebody asked me that every 30 seconds. Like for the rest of my life. Because I slack on that, honestly.

Tina: Yeah.

Johnny: I have been taking some measures recently. So I started…I was actually out of therapy for a while and then I started back. It’s not really a story worth telling but sometimes you have a therapist and it’s going really well and then that therapist moves or changes agencies or you know. In my case, my therapist adopted a daughter and had to cut his availability and so he couldn’t keep all his clients and I was like, yeah, no worries. And then I was out of therapy for like over a year. And these little circumstantial things can kind of just make you think like, oh, maybe I don’t need therapy any more, you know? And so I spent a year outside of therapy and I just started back. I found someone great and the homework that I was assigned was to spend at least one three hour period per week by myself, not working. And it had to be a three hour period, not like an hour on Monday, an hour on Wednesday, an hour on Friday. Like one chunk of three hours where I’m not being productive because anyone who runs a business or company understands that you’re almost on the clock 24/7.

Tina: Right!

Johnny: Especially when it’s technology. Like we serve people around the clock so I have a habit of overextending myself and I’ve found that that has made a huge impact like beyond working out, beyond trying to get a good amount of sleep, like setting aside Johnny time. It is three hours I can spend however I want. I’m telling you… I’m 29 years old and I haven’t taken a nap in like a decade and I just started trying to take at least a couple naps a month. So like a Sunday afternoon after church, I’m like, OK this is my Johnny time. How do I want to spend it? And I’m like, honestly, I might just lay here for like 45 minutes and accomplish nothing. And it’s felt really freeing to know that the world doesn’t crumble just because I make myself unavailable, you know?

Tina: Yeah and it sounds like it also gives you time to find those things that might make you happy, right? Like I guess for me downtime is going out for a walk with my dogs or going out in the yard and doing some things just because I like to do it, knitting. You know I think sometimes we don’t give ourselves permission to do these things, right? Yeah. So awesome.

Johnny: Yeah. I think one of the biggest self-care things that I do that probably doesn’t look like self-care to other people is I try to go to car shows as often as possible. They do like Cars and Coffee and they’ll bring out all these lamborghinis and ferraris and McClarens and I just like go and stare at these cars and I marvel at the care and precision with which these cars were crafted and I love art. I’m like a big…I love all forms of art and going to a car show is like going to a great big museum where you get to stare at these sculptures where you know took like teams of the most talented engineers in the world and spend millions of dollars in research and development to create the most beautiful sculptures known to man and I can just drive to go look at them for free? It is the thing that is most different from my work. There is nothing more different from running a software company than staring at architecture in person, in real life. It’s like, I don’t know, it just feels so frivolous and cool. It’s not saving anybody’s life, it’s not like making the world a better place, it’s just something that is fun just for the sake of fun and it’s really life giving for me.

Tina: And it fills your cup and it’s why we ask this question to every guest because I think many of us would like to be asked that question. Part of why we ask the question is we ask it to each other all the time because we don’t take the time to do it as often as we should and I think the idea that people get ideas from different guests. I love that.

Serena: Yeah, so before we bring this episode to a close today, is there anything we haven’t asked you that you would like to put out there to the world?

Johnny: Yeah. One thing I think, also if there are parents listening, I would want to say this. A common misconception around mental health resources is that they’re only for people living with diagnoses and that’s kind of like saying, I only need to buy my kid a toothbrush if he has cavities. Like that’s not really logical, right? You would actually want your kid to use a toothbrush so that they don’t get cavities. And that’s the way I encourage all parents listening to think about providing behavioral health resources for their family is not…this is not a reactionary thing. I’m not saying if you are someone who is self harming you should, you know, promote healthy mental practices in your home. I’m saying, you should be doing that regardless of what your family’s behavior is like because everyone in your family has a brain and if you are really taking on that role, like wanting to set a good example for your kids, you will take care of your brain and if you want to take on the role of being a protector and a provider. And it doesn’t have to be Cope Notes. I’m not saying, like, you know, if you want to be a good parent give them Cope Notes. I’m saying if you want to be a good parent, prioritize mental health regardless of the way your family is feeling and behaving because there is no perfect family and attempting to be one might be a misuse of your time when compared with trying to equip your family with types of tools and skills and resources they would need when the going gets tough because it likely will.

Serena: That is a great message. Thank you and you know, 100 percent. We all have mental health just like our physical health. So Johnny, thank you so much for joining us today and taking time out to talk with us and all of the work that you’re doing and it is definitely making the world a better place!

Johnny: Thank you so much for having me and thank you…I just also want to say, last thing, if you’re someone who has spent a half hour listening to this podcast, it also says a lot about you as a person. So just, like, congratulations and thank you for caring so much about conversations like this. Thank you. You are the reason why ten years from now, the world will look different. It’s because people like you actually care.

Tina: Yes. And we thank our listeners and just to circle back, this is an awesome tool for one’s toolbox because we all have mental health as Serena said and we all need a toolbox for mental health, right? And so podcast friends, we are, as always, grateful for all of you listening and supporting us. You can help us out by visiting Apple podcasts, leaving us a review, subscribe and please share with others. You will find lots more content on our website You will also find us on all the socials, Facebook, Insta and Twitter and you can connect with us there as well.

Serena: And this is your gentle reminder to take good care of yourself while you are also taking care of your people.

Tina: Thanks so much for listening!

Serena: Bye!