Depressed People Find Aid in Students' 'Mood Tools'

Students combine gift of technology and counseling to create popular app

Mood Tools App

Eddie Jiu and Nancy Su with their student-developed Mood Tools app. Photo by Megan Mendenhall/Duke Photography

It wasn’t like he passed out business cards or toted a couch around Durham Academy.

For reasons still unknown to him, Eddie Liu was the campus shrink for his high school classmates.

“It just kind of happened,” he says.

Those experiences and the influence of his high school psychology teacher, Lindy Frasher (daughter of Duke men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski), convinced Eddie to pursue undergraduate degrees in psychology and neuroscience from Duke, which he earned in May.

Now, Eddie is pouring his gift for counseling and love of technology into a popular medical app.

MoodTools, which he and fellow 2015 psychology graduate Nancy Su released in July 2014, has become a top 50 medical app on the Google Play store for Android, with around 500 downloads a day.

Late this summer the app became available for iPhone and iPad users on iTunes, where it was downloaded more than 1,000 times in its first three days, he says.

All totaled, the app has more than 100,000 downloads on Google Play and around 10,000 on iTunes, Eddie says. 

Mood Tools app

Top menu screens showing featurs of the Mood Tools app.

The easy-to-use app features tools to help its users reduce and eliminate clinical depression. The tools are based on the principles of multiple forms of psychotherapy, including cognitive-behavioral therapy and acceptance and commitment therapy.

MoodTools users can take a symptom severity test then use the app’s guides on therapeutic techniques, including a suicide safety plan and a thought record.

The idea for the app originated in 2014, during the summer after their junior year. Bored, Eddie perused the Google offerings for depression-related apps. He came away unimpressed.

“I’ve always been obsessed with new phones, technology and computers, and also mental illness,” says Eddie. “The most popular app I found was ugly to me, so I said, ‘OK, I can make something better than this?’ I got together with Nancy and brainstormed ideas. I learned to code this past April and in May we designed the whole app.”

The duo received guidance from Gary Glass, associate director for outreach and developmental programming at Duke’s Counseling & Psychological Services, and from Tim Strauman, a professor in the Department of Psychology & Neuroscience.

“MoodTools is a significant development in mobile mental health applications. It is based on treatment principles that represent the best that science has to offer,” Strauman said in a news release for the app’s launch. “MoodTools will surely be a significant benefit to individuals who are dealing with depression and related disorders.”

The app to date has received 4.3 out of a possible five stars from more than 1,000 reviews on Google Play. Many of the posted comments say MoodTools has helped them deal with significant mood issues.

“I've struggled with depression my entire life and I've been suicidal more times than I can count,” posted one reviewer on Google Play. “This app helps bring things into perspective and calm down the raging thoughts and emotions trying to take over my mind.”

Nancy, who is taking some time off before pursuing graduate work in clinical psychology, says she also became interested in psychology through the influence of a high school teacher and the encouragement of her parents.

Along with helping develop the app’s content, she handles promotions and research for MoodTools.

“I thought using smartphones to deliver simple psychotherapy tools was brilliant,” Nancy says of Eddie’s idea. “My desire is always that MoodTools gains the momentum to benefit a large population of people.

“As mental health becomes a bigger global topic, I hope that MoodTools can make an impact on that topic, as well as serve as an example of how technology can improve the delivery of health care.”

Eddie, whose father is Duke chemistry professor Jie Liu, has already expanded the app so it’s functional around the world. And he’s planning to incorporate more elements, such as medication management or a daily mood rater.

He’s got plenty of time to build the app business before he’s finally a real psychiatrist. He just started medical school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“I’m looking at four years of medical school, four years of a residency, plus a couple of years in a fellowship,” he says. “It’s gonna be awhile.”