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CommunityMental HealthTakalam: Meeting the global need for therapy in Arabic

Takalam is the Arabic word for talk, and that is just what this online counseling platform that launched in 2020 is helping Arabic speakers who need it to do. Founder and CEO Khawla Hammad tells The Livehealthy Podcast how she came to create the service, how in the early days, pre-Covid, she encountered some of the resistance and stigma associated with seeking help from a professional in this region, and why the service is so...
Ann Marie McQueenJanuary 12, 202227 min
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Khawla Hammad TakalamKhawla Hammad, founder and CEO of Takalam

Takalam is the Arabic word for talk, and that is just what this online counseling platform that launched in 2020 is helping Arabic speakers who need it to do. Founder and CEO Khawla Hammad tells The Livehealthy Podcast how she came to create the service, how in the early days, pre-Covid, she encountered some of the resistance and stigma associated with seeking help from a professional in this region, and why the service is so very necessary. 

How did this all come about?

Like most people in the space and the mental health industry, or mental health startups, usually the founders, or the founding partners, go through the personal experience themselves that makes them realize there is a need, and others are going through such an experience, most probably. For me, it was really going through the challenges of not being able to access mental healthcare at my own convenience when I needed it. When I looked more into the numbers and dug deeper into the statistics around the region, I realize this is a much bigger problem than I thought and wanted to do something about it and create a solution that would hopefully help people and solve for a very, very important need. At the same time, as a startup, to innovate in a place that has not been looked at seriously before and has been done in a very traditional way for the past decades. 

Was it a language, cultural, religious issue?

For me, at that point, I was living in the States, and I had my first child. As a new mom, the limitation of you being out and about is not as flexible and having to schedule the time, the travel to and from. At that point, also, and this is more of a global issue, there is the stigma and not realizing that this is actually much bigger than what people would think of you, or much bigger than just having that negative perception about mental health and mental healthcare. I was going through all these at that point. I realized there is no access that is easy in the first place, and then there is no access that would meet my needs in terms of language, in terms of culture, obviously. In the region overall, in the UAE, in the Gulf region, there aren’t enough service providers in this domain. Obviously, the market is huge. There’s a huge demand.

Did you have postpartum?

Yes, that’s right. I had very bad postpartum depression. I actually did not realize that was postpartum depression. This is part of the issue as well that there is lack of awareness, lack of guidance, to realize these were the symptoms, that I needed to do something about it. Later on, I realized, ‘yes, this is serious. I should have taken care of more of it’.” I’m glad I went through it and came out of it. It is important to have this awareness also in our communities that this is what it feels like. The earlier, the better. Obviously, understanding the signs and mitigating whatever risks that will come later on is very crucial.

Where and how does the Arabic background help?

That’s a very good question because I can talk literally. I can speak to a psychologist who’s based in X country and does not have a clue about where I come from, or what type of upbringing I had, that’s possible. However, for you to have an effective relationship with your therapist, building that relationship is extremely important because 50 percent of the therapy is actually connecting with your therapist. If I cannot relate to this person or this person cannot relate to me, does not get where I’m coming from, does not understand why certain things are the way they are, it’s hard to carry on with this relationship. Having that cultural understanding is extremely important and speaking the same language, not necessarily and in terms of the language itself, but the context is extremely important. I realize that’s important for a lot of people as well.

Might a Western therapist not understand the collectivist nature of society, where family comes first?

Of course, and how you’re so dependent on your families and how you’re living with your family after the age of 18. It’s a lot of things that. It depends really on the culture, and a few are not part of this culture. It’s going to be hard for you to understand.

Can you speak to the stigma about mental health in the Arab world?

It is still an issue. However, if there’s one good thing that the pandemic gave us, it was the highlight on the importance of mental health. With the start of the pandemic, you probably saw the rise of initiatives, the awareness campaigns that started on a global level and national community-based initiatives. With the studies coming, mentioning that one in three individuals who have recovered from COVID would most likely go into either depression or an anxiety. There is definitely something coming our way that we should be better prepped for. With that, I see a lot of people starting to grasp the concept and understand that this is something actually beyond the extreme negative picture that we had for a very long time. We all grew up thinking that mental health is just for the extreme situations for those who are wanting to be hospitalized, those who are literally insane. Meanwhile, it’s really just a whole spectrum. It could be someone who’s just going through daily life stressors and require some tactics or some skills to be able to cope with those managing emotions and what-not. The younger generation definitely has more of an open mind to mental health and looking at it differently. However, there’s still a lot of room to educate parents still, I will say. I’m trying to change that stigma. It’s going to be a lot of effort, but through the younger generation, I think this is doable, and I hope we get there.

Is there a sense religion should offer the answers?

Some individuals would still think that way and I see where they are coming from. However, if you look at it, religion can definitely help how, having the faith, having the discipline and going through the practices is definitely something spiritual and will keep you in check. However, there are scientific-based things, like if someone has genetic mental health issues, I think this requires more than just religion and this is where the experts and the expert matters need to come in place and it’s a thin line, I would say. This is where the awareness is very crucial and to have that differentiator between both at what point you really have to start seeing someone professional, to look at it more in terms of a medical issue that you need to seek help for. Just like you go check your heart and you go check your physical checkup every year, this is no different. This should be part of the daily life routine, part of your yearly checkup, it’s as important because, at the end of the day, most of the physical illnesses actually come from a psychological place.

Can you talk a little bit about the physical manifestation?

Yes. If you look at high blood pressure, for example, you’re not able to sleep at night. This all comes back from certain triggers; I’m not a doctor or anything, but I’m just talking about my experience. If I am not able to function, if I’m always fatigued, I am not able to get out of bed just like I feeling so down, so drained, this has to come from psychological place, Obviously, it affects and it takes a toll on your body. Keeping that in check and keeping the balance is very important. It doesn’t have to be using a therapist. It could be as simple as just you practicing mindfulness or meditation. Taking a few minutes doing breathing exercises in the morning would help, taking a few minutes out of your busy daily schedule while you’re in your desk. Just living in the moment is definitely helpful. Adding to that, having the healthy lifestyle, the nutrition, the physical activity, all adds up. Definitely not being in a good place mentally can, of course, affect your overall physical health. 

When you set up Takalam?

Honestly, I was so afraid at the beginning. Obviously, this is a huge step and I wanted to better understand the market, the need, and I will be honest with you. I did not get enough, I would say, encouragement from certain individuals initially, apart from my family, obviously. My family was very, very supportive, but I’m talking about those who I wanted to partner with initially and this was a bit before the pandemic. Like a couple of months before the pandemic and still was awkward, bringing this topic up. When I was trying to explain it, like, ‘hey, mental health is a real problem, is a social problem’, and it was always awkward conversation that I would be having with certain individuals. Then with the pandemic, it was much easier. Everything went virtual. The access is extremely important to a lot of people and then the topic of mental health became more of a hot topic and the need, and you’ve noticed maybe the nationwide initiatives were set by the government talking about mental health and mental wellbeing and how to cope with the pandemic, how to cope with the life stresses, how to cope with the change that come in our way. It definitely made my start easier at that point. I was starting to talk to entities and individuals who would understand and see why this is actually important now. I’m glad that I was not turned off by those conversations that I had and was patient to see that this is actually the right thing to do and just very fulfilling and rewarding on daily basis, knowing that creating something that would definitely have a positive, one way or another, is very very fulfilling, and I’m grateful for it.

It’s hard to introduce new ideas to people…

Absolutely, and then thinking that I am saying that they need this is sometimes as they’re getting, either offended, because this is the thing about the stigma again, the negative perception. It really has nothing to do with you being mentally ill, because you can be mentally healthy but still need that guidance and support to help you cope with certain difficult situations. I don’t know anyone, honestly, that does not go through mental challenges on daily basis. We all need it, and it’s a way to look at differently in a sense, that this is something that could unlock my potential, can help me build healthier relationships, better manage my emotions and help my overall wellbeing.

Where did you source the therapists from?

That actually was challenging at the beginning because again, it’s a new concept to ask even the therapists to be online  in this part of the world. To bring something into the region, trying to explain the idea to the therapist here was not as straightforward showing them the need and the advantages also was challenging. All we needed was those few believers who would jump on the boat initially and then obviously the awareness work we’re doing, the promotional work, the marketing we’re able to, at this point, now we are receiving more on a daily basis, we’re receiving tons of applications

What’s the uptake been like?

It’s been amazing, honestly. I was not expecting this much, at least in the first year. We have proudly users from over 18 countries around the world. The majority, obviously, are Arabic speakers looking for Arabic therapists. It is amazing to see individuals going for it. Our aim was try to create the awareness as much as possible to get individuals to just take that first step, but it was much sooner than we had anticipated, to be honest with you. I’m so glad to see this is the case. Obviously, we still have a much bigger job to do with the awareness, with trying to break the stigma around mental health but it’s a great time to see the user base up until now. If we want to be honest, we literally opened it up to the public last March. Between now and then, it’s been amazing progress and amazing to see those number of individuals coming on the platform and utilizing it.

How do people access Takalam’s services?

You go in the platform, you select the counselor that would suit your needs if you would to select that yourself. However, we realize a lot of people need that piece of guidance initially to be able to identify what they are looking for, because for a lot of them, it’s their first time and they want to know what to look for, who to look for based on symptoms, based on preferences, needs. We take them through this very short assessment to identify the most suitable therapist for them. Once they select the therapist, they just book their session, they make the payment and start the session with the option of being anonymous, again, to help with overcoming that fear of stigma. They get the choice of having the session, like we are doing now, on an audio call or a video call or even just texting, to get them through the initial phase.

What’s the cost?

It varies, really. Our aim is to always have it as low as possible to make this affordable, obviously, but I would say the average on the platform is around US$80 (Dh232), which is way more affordable than the typical physical clinics that individuals are used to. Some of them would go up to Dh1,200 an hour, which, if I wanted to keep this as a weekly thing to do or monthly or whatever it is, it’s definitely going to be a huge budget. With Takalam, we are still testing and working on this. It’s still a work in progress. Our aim is to bring it down even more and more and try to find the best ways for individuals to afford this. We’re looking at other initiatives. Things that even for a student who cannot afford it, we’re looking at things to do with the financial aid to help students, basically, to access the help they need through incentives, through discounts, whatever that is. Another way we actually do that for individuals and we realized, obviously, most insurances do not cover mental healthcare. Another way to make it available to individuals is we go through employers by having corporate companies, by having government entities come on board, sponsor these sessions for their employees. We realized that the fastest and the most effective way to achieve and attract the biggest number of individuals and to have the biggest impact.

What if someone is a little hesitant? 

We’re happy to answer any questions, to get anyone’s thoughts, and anything. It doesn’t have to be for services. We’d love to hear from the community. We’d love to always have this open conversation.

The more people are having this open conversation, the better it is for the future and for the rest of the community. Definitely, we’d love to hear from everyone. Please do reach out to us. The first step is the hardest but once you overcome that first step, it becomes an easier journey after that.

To find out more go to the website takalamhere.com (keep an eye out for their new app, coming soon) or reach out on Instagram @takalamhere. Khawla Hammad’s full interview can be found on The Livehealthy Podcast.

Ann Marie McQueen

Ann Marie McQueen is the founding editor-in-chief of Livehealthy and host of The Livehealthy Podcast. She is a veteran Canadian digital journalist who has worked in North America and the Middle East. Her past roles include features editor for The National, trends writer and columnist for the Canadian newspaper chain Sun Media, and correspondent for CBC Radio.

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