Ibrahim, a 16-year-old, had been battling depression, stress, and anxiety. He struggles to find the right coping mechanisms, as many dismiss mental illness as a “phase” or pitch dubious substitutes for therapy. In a typical Middle Eastern household, a family member having mental health, most often, is reluctant to reveal their anxiety to their loved ones.
Admitting to a mental health condition is deemed harder than confessing to having a drinking problem or going bankrupt.
This stems from a stigma attached to psychological issues that spawn a refusal to acknowledge the fact that mental illness is like any other health issue that needs to be addressed through professional assistance.
“Stigma further perpetuates the lack of awareness around the topic and puts those struggling at an unfair advantage against years of cultural programming,” says Latifah Al Essa, founder and CEO of mental health platform Ayadi.
Mental illness is more common than one would think, and the reasons can be several and broad. Financial uncertainty, instability in professional lives, and a lack of awareness about psychological issues have created a dangerous cocktail that threatens the Middle East region with a mental health crisis.
The situation isn’t so good in the UAE, where 63% of people felt helpless during the pandemic. A survey indicated many respondents were stressed due to problems at work or home. It is a good sign that more people are seeking professional help in the UAE; however, the problem here is long waitlists, owing to a shortage of mental health providers.
ONLINE THERAPY DEMOCRATIZES ACCESS
Another sad reality is that accessing help for anxiety-related problems isn’t cost-friendly. With anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder among a long list of problems confining people in dark corners of the house or behind a facade of normalcy, online therapy, offering comfort, and counseling through the computer screen over Zoom has been a boon.
An increasing number of digital platforms are bridging the gap between mental health patients and therapists.
“Being online — whether in rural or urban areas — democratizes access to mental well-being. It is still early, but we see clients from smaller urban centers in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE so far,” says Latifah on how digital portals are gaining trust amongst people as safe spaces.
Taking a cue from telemedicine portals, UAE-based Takalam connects mental health professionals and patients through text, voice calls, or video conferencing while allowing them to keep their identities confidential.
Apps like Aura address anxiety through meditation, stories, and life coaching from top therapists globally for more specific conditions.
Egyptian online platform Shezlong has over 120,000 users in 85 countries and links with 350 therapists. More than half of its users are women from Egypt and Saudi Arabia, as they face more restrictions in conservative Arab societies.
In Saudi Arabia, where one in three people suffer from mental health disorders in their lifetime, the digital platform Labayh, which has over 100 mental health practitioners, is tackling the problem by connecting patients with psychiatrists in an anonymous and secure way.
The rise of AI has positively impacted the situation. For instance, UAE-based firm uMore processes biomarkers and behavioral patterns via machine learning to detect psychological conditions among users before creating a personalized set of activities for psychiatric care.
Then, there are platforms such as Breethe with playlists and meditation for a night of sound sleep, and Portal combines 3D soundscapes with HD visuals to transport people into soothing environments.
Popular social networks are also stepping in, with Dubai’s Digital Wellbeing Council roping in Snapchat to launch an in-app mental health portal and Google Assistant encouraging mental health patients to seek professional help in Arabic. On Google, queries for improving mental health in Arabic went up by 1100% in five years, indicating an opportunity for online counseling to fill a gap in the Middle East.
The UAE has made great strides in providing psychiatric care, with initiatives such as Abu Dhabi’s Istijaba helpline that connects callers seeking therapy with licensed specialists that respond in Arabic, Hindi, Tamil, and English.
Online therapy is helping people living in remote areas to obtain support where there’s a lack of a mental health practitioner or if they feel they cannot be seen walking into the office of a therapist.
The stigma of seeking treatment for mental health is reducing slowly, thanks to the efforts of awareness campaigns. “The UAE government has taken the lead in spreading awareness and launching several initiatives to talk about mental health during the lockdown and help the community get through the difficult times,” says Khawla Hammad, Takalam’s founder.
Privacy is crucial, and in online therapy, the time efficiency of turnaround between clients is beneficial, as is not traveling to see a therapist for the patient. Virtual therapy enables people to access scarce resources on their own terms.
But there are challenges. If a mental health patient does not have a safe place to engage in therapy, it will not work. Another obstacle, Hammad says, is the approach many therapists take in treating their patients, which is influenced by money. “Today, the therapist tries to process patients quickly and prescribe medication due to the incentives that come along with it, rather than diving into determining the root cause of the suffering and leaving medication to the last resort.”
The stigma surrounding the issue is enough as it is; approaching it as a business by therapists only makes it worse.
Ideally, people reeling from stress, anxiety, or depression shouldn’t have to hide while seeking professional help. But until that happens – when society acknowledges this problem and supports those suffering – virtual portals remain safe spaces for psychiatric care.
“The way forward is normalizing the conversation about mental health. Once we, as a society, start viewing mental well-being in the same manner as we view physical well-being, the road to adoption becomes much easier,” says Latifah.