Lebanese team making psychotherapy accessible online

Some 25% of the people in the Middle East have mental health issues but only half of that figure seek therapy.
Sunday 02/12/2018
An illustration by the Touch Innovation Program. (TIP) 
Accessible treatment. An illustration by the Touch Innovation Program. (TIP) 

BEIRUT - While more than 10% of the world’s population suffers from some sort of mental disorder, the condition is aggravated in the Middle East by social stigma, little availability of therapy and its high cost.

Considering the three main reasons people shy away from seeking therapy, Joe Zaarour, who said he is a survivor of depression, wanted to make treatment more accessible. He co-founded Sympaticus, an online psychotherapy and well-being platform in Lebanon.

“The idea of Sympaticus came from a personal experience,” Zaarour said, “When I was going through a period of high anxiety and depression I sought regular therapy but it did not suit me. So I used an online psychotherapist in the United States and I thought” ‘Wow, this actually works.’”

Zaarour said some 25% of the people in the Middle East have mental health issues but only half of that figure seek therapy.

“Many suffer for a long time but they are not aware of their mental disorder. If they do, they fear stigma, which is always a big issue in our society. It is hard to ask people to recommend a therapist; you are immediately considered crazy,” Zaarour said.

“Therapy is also very expensive it can go anywhere from $60 to $150 per session, which makes it inaccessible for many people, especially that the duration of the treatment is quite unpredictable.”

Zaarour and four partners, including a psychiatrist, started working on the online platform two years ago and hope to launch it officially in Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates in November. There are plans to expand it to other Middle Eastern countries in addition to the United Kingdom.

It was called “Sympaticus” because it offers sympathy to the people in need.

“We want to offer a good alternative to what exists in the market today and at less expensive rate,” he said. “Our objective is to make therapy more accessible.”

Sympaticus, a mobile application that can be downloaded free of charge, offers a subscription-based customised treatment plan developed and delivered by qualified therapists.

The app journey begins with a few questions and, based on answers, the user gets a specific treatment plan that includes reading material, videos and exercises. The treatment is monitored through one-on-one intervention with therapists via text messages and video calls, an alternative to face-to-face talks.

The process is strictly confidential and users have the choice not to show their face or reveal their real name.

“We follow the standards developed by London’s National Health Service,” Zaarour said. “The protocols we use have been proven clinically by international organisations to be as effective as going to a therapist in a clinic and sitting on ‘the chair’.”

Sympaticus offers therapy for mild and moderate cases of mental illness. “We don’t do acute cases and we don’t prescribe medicines,” Zaarour stressed.

Users are encouraged to use the platform after depression caused by burn out, job loss, breakup of a relationship, the loss of a loved one, displacement from home and eating disorders, among other cases.

Sympaticus was incubated at the UK tech hub. It was released after being submitted to a three-test cycle. It won several start-up competitions, including second prize at the Grow My Business competition, and was chosen as one of the six touch innovators of the Touch Innovation Programme, where the founders spent six months moving their start-up ideas to the next level.

It was also selected as a finalist at ArabNet Beirut’s Startup Battle and one of three semi-finalists in the Ideas Track at MIT Enterprise Forum in 2016.

The Sympaticus team is working with the government in Abu Dhabi to provide the service as part of a well-being programme for public employees, Zaarour said.

“Around 40% of the employees’ well-being is impacted by their mental state, which nobody talks about it at work,” he said, adding: “Smart companies are investing in the mental health of their employees by providing them with an alternative.”

The app is available in English and an Arabic version is in the pipeline, Zaarour said.

“The content will be definitely Arabised as our target market is the Middle East. Consumers can download the app and start with free access for a limited time because we want to reduce the barriers, so they can feel comfortable with using the app.”

Zaarour said as many as 24 million people aged 15-55 in the region need therapy.

For more information visit: https://www.sympaticus.com/.