May 8, 2020
Better App Co-Founder John Halker on Emotional Wellness and Psych Education
“You can’t take your mental health for granted anymore. You’ve got to do something.”
“Life made better. A powerful mental health app.”Source: Better App
How much do you value your physical health? Alright. Now, how much do you value your mental health? Take a moment to truly reflect on that – perhaps you prioritize one over the other.
And it’s not your fault. For decades, “mental health” simply wasn’t a facet of our vocabulary.
“When I was a kid, nobody ever mentioned mental health,” said psychotherapist and ‘Better App‘ co-founder John Halker. “It was just not on the agenda.”
Attitudes towards mental health have shifted in recent years, with a 2019 American Psychological Association survey reporting 87 percent of American adults said: “a mental health disorder is nothing to be ashamed of.”
However, mental health is more than just a buzz word – it’s intertwined with your overall health. An emotional wound demands your attention, just as a physical wound does.
Recently, we spoke to Halker via video call for a very insightful discussion about the “Better App” and “Better Stop Suicide App,” groundbreaking mental health apps designed to guide you in fostering a proactive approach to your emotional wellbeing.
Tell us about your work and background in psychotherapy
I studied psychology in many forms very early on in my career. Back then, I was too young to really be able to give anybody potential counseling or psychotherapy – I just didn’t have enough life experience. I’d read all the textbooks, practiced, and got all of the qualifications.
I went into the real world and did all sorts of things. I had years in magazine publishing; I worked for a large company in the UK, rose up the ranks in magazine publishing, the commercial side and editorial side.
I left all that after about 12 entrepreneurial years. Long story, moved to South Africa with my then-wife just after [Nelson] Mandela had got out of prison and the world in South Africa was opening up. She was from South Africa.
Stayed there for a few years, and once again, began studying the world of… I guess this would be in the early 90s. Back in the 80s, I’d learned to hypnotize people and realized I had a feel for it. It’s one of those things I could just do, and these days, I do quite a bit of teaching about hypnosis.
I went on and I studied psychotherapy throughout the 90s.
Then I moved to the United States. I started a software company for doctors. Myself and a couple of colleagues realized the US market would potentially be a very big thing for us to export from South Africa. So I moved to San Francisco during the “dot com boom,” just at the turn of the millennium. I lived and worked there for awhile.
I built up my psychotherapy while still doing the software, and I moved to New York in about April 2001, as I was gradually building up the psychotherapy practice.
In New York, I was doing business to do with this medical software, and it was going quite well.
I wasn’t injured, very, very minor cuts and bruises. I managed to get out of there. I got kicked out of my apartment because it was knee-deep in dust. It was just in Battery Park City there.
I was kicked out of there for about eight-weeks, I had to stay in a hotel. Finally got back into my apartment, but our software business just wasn’t going to hack it in the United States at that time. All sorts of businesses were shrinking – a bit like now. The world goes into crisis and everybody just goes, “Don’t spend anything!”
It was also a bit of a personal turning point for me. I left the United States, went back to London where I was born. I carried on doing bits and pieces with the medical software, but my heart wasn’t into it, so I went into psychotherapy full-time in early 2002.
Then I moved to a funny little place called Guernsey, which is most misunderstood. If you look for Guernsey, there’s a Guernsey in Wyoming. The original Guernsey is in the channel islands – There’s Guernsey, there’s Jersey, Alderney, and Sark.
But what a fabulous place, a great place to bring up kids. By then I had a wife – different from the South African one. She had a young son and we moved there.
It’s… It’s just… There’s no crime. You can leave your checkbook on the seat of your convertible car, nobody’ll touch it. It’s that kind of place. It was idyllic.
After a couple years of being a stay-at-home dad, I realized now was the right time for me to go back to psychotherapy, so I studied and studied and studied again. Really to just do some continued professional development, ’cause lots of my qualifications by then were South African or American.
I did that, set up a thing called “The Grove Clinic” full-time, opened my doors. I quickly became one of the leading providers of mental and emotional health resources in Guernsey and I have been ever since. I’ve had a two to three week waiting time period to see me for about 15 years.
You have such an incredible story and I’m so happy to see that you’ve made it to this point. What initially sparked your interest in psychotherapy and hypnosis, though? It’s not necessarily a career you think of when you’re five-years-old and go, “Aw, man, I want to be a psychotherapist!”
The grandfather of hypnotherapy is a guy called Milton Erickson. He was just absolutely brilliant. But there’s a guy called David Elmore who studied under Milton Erickson.
This is an odd story, and this is a small-world story, but I’ve got a very unusual surname, H-A-L-K-E-R. If you look it up, there’s a collection of them around Columbus, Ohio.
When I was about 20-years-old, which you can imagine is a long time ago, there was a knock on our door – we lived in quite poor circumstances – and it was this guy called Gerry Halker, he was an American – a dentist from Florida.
He traveled around the world teaching people about hypnosis and its use in dentistry. I was really kind of taken by that and I asked him to tell me all about hypnosis.
Everywhere he went around the world, he would look up in the phone books and try to find other people with the name “Halker,” as it is very rare, wherever you go in the world. He had found us in the London Telephone Directory. There isn’t very many of us in the UK – I think there’s only one family line that we’ve ever managed to trace.
So we welcomed him, chatted to him. He came back a year later and we kept in touch. Out of my brother and three sisters and me, I don’t know why, but I was really fascinated by this hypnosis thing.
In one of these visits, he hypnotized one of my sisters and regressed her to her fifth birthday. She was describing her birthday cake and all sorts of things – she’s a very good trance subject.
I went to visit Gerry in 1983 and spent some time down there in Homnestead, Fla., and he laid the foundation for my fascination with hypnosis, and how to use it to help people.
I was really fascinated by this whole thing, but for me, even at an early age – I think I was about 15 – I was reading books by Edward de Bono and lots of other people about changing minds.
That’s what it’s about, isn’t it? Breaking patterns and changing minds. I was always fascinated by the idea of why people behave the way they do. If I tell you off, you go back to being a child to when your mother or your father was telling off. Y’know, why is it that smell evokes certain reactions in people?
Out of anything I’ve done in my life, I’ve been very lucky to have that knowledge and be very well-read on that, to take an interest in it.
Of course, the advent of the internet and YouTube makes it so much easier to study that kind of thing. But I was well into it by the time I was 40, 50 years old. I’ve really just enjoyed it.
If you put in “Well Yeah” into YouTube, you’ll find lots and lots of odd pictures of me somewhere, and an informative, I hope, channel.
The Real Cause of Depression by John HalkerSource: The real cause of depression – it’s not a chemical imbalance….! | Well Yeah
At first, I used hypnosis as a party trick occasionally – which is never a good idea, of course. You know what it’s like if you’ve been around that kind of stuff. There’s always somebody you can hypnotize and convince them their name is Brian and that they live in Madison, Wisconsin.
Tell me a little about the “Better App” and the “Better Stop Suicide App“
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I’ve always liked technology, I’ve always been ahead of the game in technology. I can run circles around most millennials in technology… I shouldn’t say that, should I? [Laughs].
I was talking to a colleague of mine, who was happy to admit he was an x-client of mine, and we were talking about the terrible suicide rates there are in the world. We looked into it and it was just a conversation then.
A couple of conversations later, we were talking about apps and comparing apps on our phones. Everything we talked about, there was an app for that. And we both at the same instant went, “There’s no app for suicide.” We just couldn’t find one that could really do the job well… We could find one or two, but they were… Mmm, eh.
We put together “Better Stop Suicide.” It’s free, it’s out there, it’s had about 50,000 downloads. I get emails from people all over the world who have used it, and some who attest that it has saved their own life.
A lovely lady in South Dakota who runs a mental health facility for people who have tried to take their own lives, and she gives people the app when they’re leaving the hospital a day or three later as part of their go-to survival kit, she recently emailed me.
It was so well received, we won a DotCOMM award for it. It’s completely free of charge. I hope your listeners, readers, viewers will be able to download it should they ever need it.
That cost us a lot more money than we thought it would, time, and effort. We then decided we couldn’t find a good app about depression, anxiety, sleep – we couldn’t find good apps about many of the core things people come to me about everyday.
So, we set about this app called “Better.” The first thing it does is it measures your wellbeing. It uses 20 simple questions, which are based on somebody’s fundamental, emotional needs.
That emotional needs check is a scientific thing. There are the original nine questions called the “Human Givens,” which is a way of looking at mental and emotional health and have been very popular in Europe for many years, but I think it’s only just getting to the United States, interestingly enough.
It uses some other questions we’ve designed ourselves. We had this whole editorial panel of some of the best psychological brains that there are. We designed this way of doing a wellbeing score out of 160 and it will give you a numerical measurement of how well you’re doing. Then you can go back and try a week later, a month later – whenever you want to do it.
What it then does is, there’s a free part of the app, which teaches you a simple way of breathing, to just focus on and slow down the out-breath. It just talks you through that on the app.
There’s a walking bit in the app, where you can just go for a walk with some “oomph” music and me in your ears for about 20 minutes. I use it myself.
I was listening to that myself while checking out the app, it made me want to go for a walk! Especially the music, it was very motivating.
[Laughs] Good! Thank you for saying that, I appreciate it.
The app can also refer you to a psychotherapist who can talk to you online, or even make a face-to-face appointment. It encourages you to put three contacts in from your own family or friends. You can just hit one button and get in touch.
It does all those important things, to calm down, to stay connected to people, to feel valued.
Behind the premium content, which is about £5 a month ($4.99 USD) or £50 ($50.99) a year. As long as there’s not too much disparity between the pound and the dollar we’ll all be on the same page.
Behind that, there are several important things. There’s a pile of audio stuff called “Life Made Better,” and it might be a 20-minute mindfulness 101. Sit down, just close your eyes, get in touch and I’ll talk you through some mindfulness stuff.
There’s some guided imagery stuff, too. Sit down, close your eyes, and I’m going to take you on a journey that’ll make you feel calm and connected to your world.
There are stories in there, I’m a great user of stories in therapy.
You can’t learn anything unless you have a reference point. [Then], you can connect it to something you already know. If you use a metaphor to really ram that point home, it’s great.
There are a million stories out there, the classic tales of the two wolves, the Chinese farmer, the thirsty king. If you look into a lot of your childhood stories of Cinderella, there is layer after layer of story in Cinderella, and subtle meaning in the way those stories help. So there are some of, what I think are, the most powerful stories in “Life Made Better.”
Then there are the sleep audios. I always say to clients the path to sanity is through good sleep.
If you can get yourself seven and a half to eight hours a night, when you’re having enough slow-wave rest sleep and not too much REM sleep, then I can almost guarantee you that you will have a good day.
But if you don’t have a good day, I can almost guarantee you that you won’t get good sleep.
So there are audio files, sleep files. I add in one or two new ones every week. They are simply one of those things that you get when you close your eyes, you want to go to sleep now, great. Relax. Go to sleep. Focus on your breathing.
I talk people through all sorts of different scenarios to go to sleep in my very British accent, but in the background to them, there are some quite cleverly-designed things that’ll address the balance you have in your sleep.
It helps you to deal with the stresses of the day before you go to sleep, if that makes sense.
A big important thing that we do with the Better App, and I think we’re the first organization ever to do this, but we white-label it for companies and organizations. You might see the “XYZ Cell Phone” company or the “ABC Global Cleaning Company” and they’ve got their own wellbeing app. It’s actually the Better App that we will white label for any company that has more than 500 employees.
We make different deals with them around the cost of content, but they can also put their own content out. So if “FGH Aerospace” has offices all over the world and they want to give that app to every one of their employees with a smartphone, and the chairman or the president wants to send a statement to everybody, they just tell me and I record it or they record it themselves so we can get it straight out there. It’s a really useful communication tool.
Interestingly enough, with this COVID-19 issue, one of the things that’s happened is every decent employer in the world has started to pay attention to employee wellbeing if they weren’t already doing so. I think there were some who were, some who were just paying lip service to it, and some who just weren’t. Now everybody seems to be doing that.
The trouble is, there are a hundred YouTube channels they can send people to for exercise or yoga in the morning, or whatever it is. And people are just getting bombarded with this information all the time.
What a couple of the big companies we’re dealing with have said about the app is that it doesn’t do that. It’s not in your face, it’s not, “Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!” It’s not clamouring for your attention.
I noticed while filling out the emotional needs check that it’s very non-intrusive. It’s more like your go-to friend that you can reconnect with no matter how long it’s been since you’ve last seen them. So, could you tell me a little more about the design behind the apps? The panel that worked on it, the emotional needs check, or other core-app features?
There is no one size fits all. There’s this large matrix of answers that we laid out where if you’ve got generally a poor wellness score, we would give you these various suggestions about things to do and bits of your life to focus on.
That’s continuously being refined – you won’t even notice that’s being updated. If you’re marked generally high, but low on two or three things, for example feeling valued in some way by other people, or having a sense of status and achievements. It’ll talk a little bit about that, point you to more resources for how you can improve that, but it’s subliminally giving you a sense of what you need to pay attention to in the app.
There are things in the app that you’ll listen to that are just me going, “Blah, blah, blah,” and you’ll go, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. I can get that somewhere else.” But there are things that you’ll hear in the app that are particularly applicable to you because of the answers that you gave where you’ll go, “Oh, right. That’s kind of a lightbulb thing for me. I didn’t realize my mind worked in quite that way.”
And the next time you’re doing an emotional needs check, you’ll find that your score’s gone up a bit and you’ll go, “Oh! That’s interesting. I wonder why.”
It’s on a sliding scale because it’s a continuum. If you live in the middle of ISIS held territory, you will probably mark fairly low on feeling safe and secure in your own home. But you might be a sweet, little old lady in Poughkeepsie that has a neighborhood full of drug dealers who have just moved in, and you’ll probably mark equally low.
So it’s not about crime statistics or anything like that, but it’s just about your feelings; why is it that you feel safe and secure in some circumstances? We can’t be arbiters of what circumstances will make people feel certain emotions, but we can help them choose what to do when need is not met well.
You know that you are a helpless baby and that you need to bond with this person, this big person – you don’t even know that they’re called mum. But they seem to soothe you, and you know that you are helpless and that you need to be a part of their tribe.
As long as you’re part of their tribe, you will be safe. And if they’re good at making you feel part of their tribe, they soothe you, change you, feed you, then you will feel safe and secure as a baby. Your template is being completed by good things.
When you see these mental health screenings in America, for example, it’s always about five questions or so that are like, “Do you feel low most days?” “Do you think about harming yourself?” They don’t ask about your situation. Rather than only focusing on those questions, the Better App asks about all aspects of your life. It’s very considerate.
It took about a year of work with a panel of us with some founders of different schools of psychotherapy.
Those questions that you would get asked in a doctor’s room… [Sighs]. I’ve seen these for a long time. I really have. The HADS Scale and things like that, they’re things that I used to use 30, 40 years ago, and thought, “Hmm… Very nice, but they don’t quite do the job these days.”
But depression is not caused by a chemical imbalance in your brain. It’s caused by having too much REM sleep or too intense REM sleep. You have too intense REM sleep because of what happened to you the day before, or you’re ruminating over previous things in your life.
When you learn that, it’s quite empowering it because it removes any idea of this strange notion of a chemical imbalance and if you take this magic pill, that balance will be rebalanced and you’re fine.
That’s a bit like saying, “Hey, I’m feeling a bit edgy today and I have been for a few days. Let’s smoke some weed.” If you smoke weed? Great. You don’t have to admit anything [laughs].
But now you feel better and you say, “Wow, I feel better. I needed that weed. There was a chemical imbalance in my brain that left me needing some weed. Now I’m having it every day and I feel terrific. I’m just a complete human being and that chemical imbalance is gone.”
The trouble is, we all know what happens next. Now you’re stuck on bigger and bigger doses of weed for the rest of your life. Then you try to come off it and it’s like, “Uhh! Big problem.”
People’ll nod sagely and say, “Yeah, yeah. Get that.” It’s like saying the same about SSRIs, antidepressants. Why would it be a different story? You’re taking something you didn’t need in the first place – in most cases, you needed to sort out your life, and now you’re stuck on it because the withdrawal is too much. How did we get to a point where 13 percent of the adult population is taking antidepressants? How can that happen in just one generation?
The side effects, we get past them or we ignore them. Prescribers say, “Oh, you’ll be on it for the rest of your life, but it’s fine.” But it’s not “fine.” [Laughs] It’s not fine!
Cannabis-induced anxiety and panic attacks are real things. I’ve dealt with lots, and lots, and lots, and lots different cases of that. The same can be said for alcohol-induced anxiety and panic attacks.
I’m not advocating that nobody has any alcohol or nobody has any weed. It’s when you rely on it for being that thing that calms you down, and if we turn our attention back to antidepressants, you can tell when their vocabulary around depression changes.
Generally speaking, it’s because of a skill deficit in somebody’s life. If it’s not trauma, and they’re not in some toxic environment, there’s a skill deficit in their life in terms of the way they’re thinking and reacting. Maybe they used to have the skill, but maybe they never learned it.
We all know people who, when there’s a major adverse life event, they just shrug it off and [sigh]. And we all know people who, when there’s a minor adverse life event, they’ve learnt their way of dealing with things from watching a soap opera. It’s like, “AHHH! OH MY GOD, WE’VE RUN OUT OF TARTAR SAUCE AND WE’RE HAVING FISH TONIGHT! AHHHH, GOD, IT’S A DISASTER!”
They don’t realize that for every thought you have like that, there’s a consequence. There is elevated emotional arousal and every human being has to get rid of their emotional arousal. You have to do it for real, during the day, through genuine means. And you need to do it in your sleep, through dreaming, which you have in your REM sleep.
If you don’t have enough REM sleep, then you’re going to need something to get you to calm down. “Hey, have some weed, have some booze. It’s only 11 o’clock in the morning. Let’s have a joint. Let’s have some beer.” It’s just a path to nowhere.
As far as cannabis is concerned, I think we’ve made a mistake in telling people they can’t have it. It doesn’t work any more than prohibition worked in the United States many decades ago.
Now that it’s all a bit more open, I think people are going to go through that loop of giving it a try and just pulling back, thinking, “Yeah, not for me.”
But, that’s a long, long, long, long answer to your question, there’s this whole matrix of different answers that come out of the “Better App,” depending on what somebody’s wellbeing score actually is.
Going back to the app, what inspired you to take an audio approach, rather than all text, videos, or other features?
There will be videos in there, they’re just not there yet.
Text, we thought long and hard about it… Despite the fact that I read books on my iPhone, generally speaking, I picture people on the underground subway system in London, New York, or sitting in their car on the freeway, on the 101.
Audio seemed to be the right route for people to really absorb and learn from while they’re driving, or just daydreaming, picking up on the psych education stuff. There’s enough for them to read in the app for all of them to read in the emotional needs check. That arrow next to the individual score will take you to more information, no matter what you’ve answered, and there’ll be useful, appropriate information and ideas.
So there is stuff to read in there. In time, we may link to blog articles externally along similar lines of psych education.
The other reason for sticking to audio is this – if you’re watching television, it’s asking for your attention. Audio doesn’t do that, the same way that radio and podcasts don’t. It’s just blurbling away in the background and you pick it up subliminally.
We just thought that was the best way for it to become the best friend that’s sitting there when you need it, making suggestions to you. Rather than saying, “Hey, I need your attention here.”
What are some of the most impactful user experiences you’ve heard from individuals who have used the app to keep tabs on their mental health or be more proactive about it?
I think that came from inside a company. There was a manager who thought he was a good manager for a team of about 40 people.
He got them all to do the emotional needs check through the corporate app we gave to them, and he got them all to report back to each other their wellbeing scores… And they were all scoring 60 or 70, generally. A lot of the stuff that was coming up was around work. It prompted them to have a discussion.
There are a lot of people who get their needs met through work, their work gives them meaning and daily purpose. It gives them a sense of being valued by other beings, status that they’ve earned.
Their work is a place where they connect with people, a bit of banter across the shop floor or office, meeting up with friends at the water cooler. They might go home to an empty apartment, but when they’re at work they’re with people, they’re laughing.
It was just fascinating. This manager eventually came back to me and said, “Look, everybody who works for me is miserable. What am I doing wrong?”
It was interesting because it was a company that managed people by targets. That’s a very dumb way to manage people.
Sure, if you say to somebody, “Look, this is a production line and at the moment you’re doing 90 per minute, and I want you to do 100 per minute and I’ll pay you an extra dollar an hour.” That’s a great way to manage people.
But if you give people a target, they will simply focus on the target. There are lots of examples I can give you of the ways in which targets just destroy management.
I said to this guy, “What do you see as your job as manager?” And he said, “Well, to manage people, make sure they’re doing their jobs properly.”
I said, “Maybe if you looked at it that your job as a manager is to facilitate that all of these people to do their jobs as well as they possibly can, bearing in mind that they’re all individuals, they’re all different, their home circumstances are different. Find out as a bunch of individuals which needs of theirs are being met and which are not, and how some of those needs are met as work.”
He came back to me a few weeks later, two or three weeks later, and he said to me, “This has changed everything. This has changed my life, this has changed the way I manage people. I’ve been a real dumb–” I won’t tell you the language he used, actually.
So that was quite a profound thing. It’s still gratifying with the other app, ‘Better Stop Suicide.’ I get emails from people just saying, “This saved my life. Thank you.”
An 11-year-old boy got in touch with us and said he was going to find a way to kill himself. He was being bullied in school, he’s got a single parent. I emailed him back and found out quite a bit about him along the way – he’s from your part of the world, actually.
For an 11-year-old boy to come to us and say, “Your app saved my life.” In that case, it was worth it and just so gratifying.
How have you personally benefited from using the app, too?
I’m very lucky. I’ve got pretty good mental and emotional health. I learned a long time ago we have to take a proactive approach to our mental and emotional health. I get a lot of the feedback we get from the app users.
When I was a kid, nobody ever mentioned mental health. It was just not on the agenda. If you had mental health issues, you went to a doctor, and if it was serious enough, you got carted off to a hospital where you rested for awhile.
Often when I give talks at companies, organizations, schools, universities, I’ll say, “Who here takes a proactive approach to their physical health?” 98 percent of people put their hand up.
Then say, “Great. Who here takes a proactive approach to taking good care of their mental health?” Most people in the room just kind of look at you. You get the occasional hand from someone who kind of hesitantly says they meditate or do yoga.
Here’s the foundation for your mental and emotional health, and I talk around those 20 or so questions in the app, looking at other ways in which people get those needs met – in ways that are sustainable, healthy, and balanced. I get great feedback from doing that.
What’s next for these apps? You’ve mentioned that you and the development team are working on videos, but are you currently working on any other features or audios in particular?
Audios are added every week. We’re probably going to record about 15, 20 of them in the next week, and we do so every month. That’s another batch for a couple of months’ worth. I spend quite a lot of time, between recording sessions, researching.
At the moment, the voice inside the app is me. And some people, particularly men, don’t like being told all this stuff by another man. We’re about to record a female voice, so there’ll be a choice between the male and female voice.
They’ll be the same in terms of content and dialogue, but the female voice will perhaps be more appealing for some people.
I can’t say I’m surprised – I would probably rather do that, but it depends on nationality, as well. The rest of the English speaking world, USA, Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and other English-speaking parts of the world have different cultural things.
We’re also having the app translated into Spanish and Mandarin.
In the early days of satellite navigation systems coming out in cars, one carmaker made a huge mistake in Germany. They used a female voice and German men didn’t want to be told where to drive by a woman, so they had to change it over to being a male voice.
Then, over a longer period of work, we’re doing an app specifically about depression, another one about sleep, another one about anxiety – but anxiety, as you probably know, comes in a number of different forms.
We’re doing an app called “Better Stop Smoking,” which is a big thing of mine. I used to be a 60-a-day smoker and I haven’t had one now for nearly… Gosh, 28 years? So I’m quite passionate about helping people quit smoking.
Another app about addictions, generally. There are about a dozen different subject areas that we’d like to do this in.
Head on over to the Better App website to learn more about it, or try it out for yourself on your iOS or Android device!
Be sure to follow Better App on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to keep up with their latest developments.
For more psych education, visit John’s YouTube channel, “Well Yeah.”
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