In the Middle East, online therapy opens doors for people who wouldn’t otherwise seek help, particularly those who feel stigmatized by therapy.
So much is changing. Now, people can easily access online therapy — no driving to an appointment, no need to switch providers if they move, and no problem if the specialist is far away.
According to a study by the Business Research Company, the global market size of online therapy services has experienced significant growth in recent years. It is projected to increase from $9.57 billion in 2023 to $12.05 billion in 2024, with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 25.9%.
For many, online therapy works just as well as traditional face-to-face therapy while effectively addressing affordability, accessibility, and cultural taboo concerns.
World Health Organization (WHO) data highlights mental health care disparity in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region. With only 2.5 psychiatrists per 100,000 residents, this figure falls drastically short of the global average of seven psychiatrists per 100,000 residents and the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) average of over 10.
Moreover, insights from the Global Burden of Disease study underscore the substantial impact of mental disorders in the GCC. Ranging between 9% and 14% of the total disease burden, this surpasses the 7% seen in high-income countries globally, highlighting the pressing need for enhanced mental health care infrastructure and support in the region.
This disparity can be partially attributed to the way mental health issues are perceived by Middle Eastern society. Despite growing global awareness, the weight of tradition and societal expectations frequently push mental struggles into the realm of shame and silence. Seeking help can be seen as a personal failing or a burden on one’s family.
Maha Botros, Head of Organizational Psychology at O7 Therapy, says a large part of the region’s complex challenges is the cultural stigma and lack of awareness. “There are some areas where conventional views around mental health are still in place. Because of deeply rooted cultural beliefs, the idea of therapy may be met with raised eyebrows.”
“Limited awareness and lack of education and understanding about mental health may result in delayed or inadequate treatment, as individuals may not recognize the signs or know where to seek help,” Botros adds.
Mohamed Alaa, CEO of online therapy platform Shezlong, says the rise of online platforms has helped offset social stigma and lack of awareness. Societal stigmas often instill a fear of exposure, which online platforms alleviate by offering patients complete anonymity.
He says these platforms also raise awareness through various activities and content through their social media platforms, blogs, and podcasts.
Botros reiterates the sentiment, saying online therapy is breaking down barriers. “Online therapy has revolutionized mental well-being, offering a discreet and personalized companion that caters to your needs. It allows users to seek help without fearing judgment.”
Sharing a similar stigma, both from her family and external sources, 27-year-old Nadine Ahmed says, “It took me a long time to convince my parents that I needed to go to therapy, and even then, they weren’t fully convinced; I first got the treatment I needed once I started working and could afford to pay for therapy myself.”
Financial and affordability constraints are another major factor steering young people towards online therapy. Often known for its high costs, therapy is inaccessible to many in the region.
Botros says economic factors play another role, especially in regions where mental health services are not adequately covered by insurance and in areas with high living costs.
Certain platforms address this issue by offering monthly subscription rates, ensuring that support remains accessible.
The primary appeal of online therapy for Ahmed was its affordability. Therapists are more inclined to offer budget-friendly options online, partly because they don’t incur office space expenses. Additionally, online platforms feature a filtering system based on one’s budget.
“Therapists are usually cheaper through online platforms. These platforms usually look at the budget you’ve set before recommending therapists to you, facilitating a quicker match with someone within your financial means.”
ACCESSIBILITY AND OPTIONS
More interconnected than ever, young people prioritize accessibility and choices when turning to online therapy, seeking their ideal match among many therapists. “It’s easier to go on an app and get matched to therapists with their qualifications and public reviews,” says Ahmed.
The surge of online therapy was initially due to the restrictions the pandemic brought, “It’s like the bright side of a difficult time, demonstrating how technology can help with mental health,” she adds.
“The pandemic has raised mental health awareness. The stigma associated with getting therapy started to fade as more people realized how important mental health is.”
The popularity of online therapy is largely due to its constant availability anywhere, anytime. “It has been a game-changer to easily connect with a therapist from the comfort of your living room during a busy workday or between errands,” says Ahmed.
These platforms offer privacy, save patients time and effort, and allow people to connect with therapists worldwide or, more specifically, with someone from their own country and culture. This is particularly crucial as therapy is highly culture-sensitive.
However, Alaa emphasizes that these platforms haven’t demonstrated effectiveness across all types of mental disorders, such as severe personality disorders, child psychiatry, and emergencies.
THE FUTURE OF ONLINE THERAPY
Soon, online therapy could evolve into a “personalized mental wellness journey” powered by AI.
“We’re talking about AI stepping in to enhance the experience,” says Botros. “For instance, in the Middle East, where mental health awareness is growing, having AI tools tailored therapy content to stigma could be revolutionary. It’s about creating a more effective and human-centric approach.”
The region’s growing demand for well-being programs in the workplace indicates a rising requirement for accessible and efficient mental health assistance.
“As organizations increasingly prioritize employee wellness, online therapy is set to play a key role,” says Botros. “We’re anticipating a surge in tailored programs specifically designed for workplace needs, addressing stress, burnout, and remote work challenges.
Collaborations between online therapy providers and corporations will rise, leading to the integration of mental health services into comprehensive workplace well-being programs.”
Demand for online therapy platforms will rise due to current unrest in the region, both political and economic, says Alaa, adding a recent surge in awareness, highlighting how public figures and television programs are addressing mental health problems.
“At the same time, people are becoming more aware that they must care for themselves and their wellness. This will encourage them to seek therapy platforms and make conscious decisions to start their wellness journey.”