While the UAE is known for its innovations in fields like transportation, financial technology and real estate, local entrepreneurs have left no stone unturned when it comes to exploring fields in need of a 21st-century makeover.
The mental health sector in the UAE and overall MENA region remains mostly uncatered to, and topics like anxiety and depression remain controversial at many dinner tables and HR meetings. It doesn’t help that in addition to the social stigma, costs for therapy in the UAE are among the highest in the world; A recent study found that the UAE was the second most expensive country in the world to seek help in, at an average of $163 for a one-hour therapy session, behind Switzerland, where counsellors charge $206 per session on average.
The recent pandemic did the world no favours, either, as the extended isolation of repeat lockdowns only served to amplify loneliness and other mental health challenges.
In light of all this, Takalam (which means ‘speak’ in Arabic), an Abu Dhabi-based healthtech startup offering mental health consultations via an intuitive app, is helping normalise the act of seeking help for people of all ages, at an affordable price. Launched in 2020 and based at Hub71, Takalam provides sessions for individuals, couples, and organisations seeking to support their employees’ mental wellbeing.
Takalam's digital transformation of the mental health sector falls in line with the efforts of the Ministry of Health and Prevention (MOHAP), which in 2019 announced the launch of a number of digital solutions technologies in the mental and psychological field, which are intended “to lead to a quantum leap in the clinical practices field,” as per the UAE government.
The Abu Dhabi SME Hub spoke with Khawla Hammad, Founder and CEO of Takalam, which is a Plug and Play Abu Dhabi-backed venture, to learn more about her exciting platform, and the need for such a service in a region that is still hesitant about discussing mental health.
Can you share with us the story behind Takalam - what led you to create your company?
A few years ago, while experiencing postpartum depression, I was looking for an easy and private solution to connect with a psychologist to seek support. It was nearly impossible to find such a service. I knew I was not the only one [facing this problem], so I decided to create a solution. Takalam was born. In the MENA region, 1 out of 4 individuals suffer from depression and anxiety and stigma becomes a big obstacle in seeking help. With Takalam, we solve many issues [faced when seeking help], including easy access and privacy, as well as offering a solution that is more affordable compared to the traditional channels of receiving therapy.
Mental health and therapy remain somewhat taboo in the MENA region. How does Takalam overcome the stigma that is associated with seeking help, while making it easy for people to secure the help they need?
The social stigma has been an issue for a long time, mostly due to the culturally reinforced negative perception associated with those who may need mental health support. A platform like Takalam mitigates this concern by providing a private and confidential solution people would be more inclined to use.
Moreover, as a result of the pandemic, mental health has been the focus of many governments and communities around the world that realised its importance. According to various studies by the UN and WHO, 1 of 3 individuals that have recovered from COVID-19 experience mental health challenges post-recovery. The need to create awareness and embrace the topic of mental health became essential to mitigate and control a mental health crisis which could potentially result from the pandemic.
What would you identify as the defining moments of Takalam so far?
It has been incredibly gratifying to see the meaningful impact we created through offering our services. There is not a day that goes by without us receiving user feedback noting how our support has led to a life-changing impact in how they shifted their perspective on their personal challenges and embraced seeking help via a technology solution.
Furthermore, the accelerated journey Takalam has experienced since our inception has allowed us to touch users from over 25 counties around the world, onboard over 60 licensed mental health experts who speak in excess of 20 languages, launch a mobile application with over 10,000 downloads in a 2-month time span, conduct over 100,000 counselling minutes, and raise a successful financing round of $1 million to grow Takalam and its services.
Takalam was also awarded several accolades including the Wellness Platform of the Year 2020 Agility Award by Entrepreneur Magazine ME and has been recognized as one of the six healthtech startups to look out for in the UAE as per CIO Magazine.
What are the challenges you've faced so far when introducing your novel business model to the region? Also, what are the subsequent lessons you've learned?
As with all new ideas or approaches, there was a fair amount of resistance from individuals, entities, and investors, who strictly stated that this is simply not going to work as it was not important in their eyes. We welcomed the scepticism and turned it into a challenge that helped us finetune our value proposition and offering, and in turn, turned some of those sceptics into believers - and in a few cases, clients.
We are blessed to have a group of investors who believe in the cause and mission we have and have faith in us as founders. We aim to continue growing and onboarding strategic investors who are aligned with the vision and mission of Takalam, and can help us grow what we have built, both in the UAE and abroad.
What support have you received so far from ecosystem entities such as Plug and Play Abu Dhabi, ADIO and Emirates Angels, and why was this crucial in the development and success of your company?
We are honoured and privileged to have been one of the startups these various ecosystem entities have helped enabled. In fact, without the support we received from each one of them, we could not have created the traction or had the successes we have seen to date in such a short time span. Each one has been a force multiplier for us in unique ways and we are grateful for the support.
What's next for Takalam?
Takalam will continue to enhance its services and build new products to ensure the best experience to address our users’ needs. At the same time, we are actively pursuing our growth strategy internationally, in particular looking to address the demand we are seeing in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
We aim to directly contribute to the visionary leadership’s Vision 2030 plan which places a tremendous emphasis and focus on increasing the livability index in the kingdom by enhancing the well-being of the community.