David Bakker: on a mission to improve your mental health


Did you know that one in four Australians will suffer a clinically significant anxiety disorder and one in six will suffer depression? Everyone will be touched by mental health issues at some point in their life, whether it's their own mental health, or the struggles of a loved one, friend, family member or colleague.

Interestingly, David Bakker points out that these statistics make it seem like depression and anxiety are selective diseases. This is not the case. In David's opinion, what this really means is that “1 in 4 Australians have had anxiety at some point that is so bad that it causes them enough distress to warrant significant external support, while the other 75% of Australians experience anxiety but have not been unlucky enough for it to be disabling, yet”. In short, anyone can experience depression and anxiety.

David is a Doctor of Psychology (Clinical Psychology) Candidate, who is using technology to help anyone who is perhaps suffering on their own by developing a smartphone app called MoodMission. The app uses an intuitive and engaging interface to help users learn better ways of coping with low moods and anxious feelings.

Following on from the success of an Australian mindfulness meditation app "Smiling Mind", which has been downloaded close to 1 million times, David wants MoodMission to help users by recommending useful and brief coping strategies to help them deal with negative thoughts and feelings.

I am super inspired by David's work with MoodMission, so I was thrilled when he agreed to be interviewed for today's Career Story. I chatted to David to learn more about mental health education, MoodMission and what he has learned since launching his Pozible campaign.

Where does your interest in mental health come from?

I guess I've always been interested in people's stories. How they are who they are, and where they're at in life. At it's core, that's what working in mental health is all about - empathising with people in their various life situations and collaboratively trying to find ways for them to be more satisfied with things.

I know that you are involved in comedy, do you think that there's a link between this passion and your work?

Comedy involves a lot of trying to figure people out. A good joke is pitched at linking together several different concepts that someone understands already, so to write comedy you have to understand what your audience is thinking and what they know.

When a group of people laugh at something, they sort of collectively "get" it. It's a way of sharing understanding in a really efficient way. It's also a way of reconciling several really different, conflicting ideas. A lot of psychological work is helping people to reconcile different ideas or values in their lives, and sometimes humour can be a great way to do this.

How do you see technology helping mental health?

Mental health is something that can be hard to talk about, so technology offers some really good ways of opening a conversation. Online or app-based tools can provide low level advice to people who want to find ways of feeling better, or can prompt people to reach out for more involved support. This applies to people in all different situations, but especially to those who live in communities that have less access to mental health support.

Tell me about MoodMission?

MoodMission is a project I've been working on for the last year and a half, which grew out of my thesis and out of my own search for a decent app to share with psychology clients. Basically I was looking for an app that could take how you were feeling and then provide really simple and effective coping strategies that you could do to help feel better again. I couldn't really find anything that worked well, so my supervisor suggested that we could build something ourselves.

MoodMission starts by getting a gauge of how you're feeling. It then gives you a tailored list of 5 simple, quick, effective, evidence-based Missions to improve your mood. All Missions are taken from scientific research, which is also made accessible to you through the app, so you can learn exactly how what you're doing is helping. Completing Missions earns you gamified rewards in the app, motivating you to take steps towards becoming healthier, happier, and more confident. It's a bit like a fitness tracking and workout app rolled into one and for your mental instead of physical health.

How does the science work in the app?

We've relied heavily on the existing scientific literature when designing MoodMission, so it's built on the foundation of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). CBT is the best thing psychologists and mental health professionals have to treat anxiety and depression, and studies have shown that it can be really effective as a computer-based therapy.

Plus all the Missions are taken from the evidence, so everything has a scientific study showing that it's a technique that can work.

But slapping a bunch of evidence-based practices together doesn't necessarily mean that it's guaranteed to work, so we are also conducting a randomised controlled trial with app. We're going to recruit a bunch of people and allocate them to one of several conditions. Each condition involves the use of a different app, and there is also a condition with no app. At the end of the trial we can have a look at the data and work out whether MoodMission did actually, statistically improve users' moods over a month of use.

Professionals have traditionally been against people "Googling" their health symptoms, yet the Smiling Mind app has had 1 million downloads. Do you think that this traditional hesitance is changing?

Yes, many professionals can be against Dr Google, but the solution shouldn't be to ban Dr Google, it should be to make sure that Dr Google is a good doctor. People are going to reach out to technology for health support whether you like it or not, so it's important to make tech-based support high quality. MoodMission wants to be a resource that you can trust for evidence-based best-practice advice.

How do we educate the Australian public about looking after their mental health? 

I think it's important to open a dialogue about how mental health problems are normal. Not normal in a good way, but normal in an understandable, empathic way. A lot of effort has gone into educating the public about how anxiety and depression are legitimate medical problems, but in reality it's a little bit more complicated than that. There are a variety of problems in approaching mental health issues like medical diagnoses. One of the main ones is it doesn't prevent stigma. There is still something "wrong" with you, even if it is a legitimate issue. I explore this a little bit in a blog post of my own, which may be helpful.

I think it's important to open a dialogue about how mental health problems are normal. Not normal in a good way, but normal in an understandable, empathic way.

Where do you see yourself and MoodMission in five years?

I'm pretty committed to pursuing a career as a clinical psychologist, either in a hospital or organisation, or in private practice. But I am also going to pursue MoodMission and hopefully make it a mainstream tool that many people are aware of. I think one of the first challenges is letting people know that you can do something about anxiety and low moods, and that thing can be done by you and an app.

I also want to try and include some sort of teaching or education role, as I have been really enjoying tutoring and I feel like stand-up comedy can be at times pretty similar to teaching classes.

What have you learned starting the crowd funding campaign and putting the project out there?

Mainly that people are happy to help out. I was ambivalent about asking people for help and I felt like I was pestering people. Now I probably am still pestering them, but I've realised that all you can do is ask. And I've had a few really, really nice connections made or reformed out of this process, so it's a bit like a consolidation of your social and professional life.

What are your three best career tips that you can share?

  1. Listen to podcasts and audiobooks. They are interesting and they make commuting/exercise/etc. intellectually stimulating. Be open to new ideas and explore new and different podcasts to encourage your own creative thinking.
  2. Take time to think about stories. Discuss movies, join a book group, or pick apart a TV series while you're watching it with a friend. It might help thinking about things from new perspectives.
  3. Always take care of yourself. Check in with yourself and do stuff to stay happy. And reach out to friends. They are usually pretty nice.

Mood Mission Pozible Campaign David Bakker

If you are interested in supporting MoodMission, please check out the Pozible site here.