When he was going through a tough period in his life, Ahmed Abu el-Haz was trying to find treatment from a psychiatrist online in order to tackle his depression. But unfortunately this was not available at the time.
"I spent three months in bed after going through a tough back surgery, and I became severely depressed," Abu el-Haz, 30, told Al-Monitor, explaining the reason behind the launch of his startup Shezlong.
The online psychotherapy and rehabilitation platform Shezlong, which has recently secured $150,000 from tech investment group A15, currently has roughly 14,000 cases from across the Arab region that require psychological help.
Software engineer Abu el-Haz decided to quit his job in 2014 to set up Shezlong, using his skills and network to bring the field of psychotherapy to the digital world.
When a client gets access to the Shezlong platform, he or she can select from a number of psychotherapists whose personal information as well as specializations are clearly shown. Abu el-Haz said that each doctor determines the fees according to the duration of the session and other factors.
Shezlong’s sessions between the doctor and the patient are conducted over the internet and last from 30 minutes to an hour. The prices start at 50 Egyptian pounds ($2.70) per session and can reach up to 400 pounds ($22).
Abu el-Haz said that half of the company’s clients are based in Egypt, while the other half are from other Arab countries. He added that the sessions are conducted via chat or video call on the site, and that Shezlong ensures full confidentiality and privacy of the patient’s disclosures.
"Through the platform, we are bringing together on one digital hub the three pillars in the field of psychotherapy: stakeholders, psychiatrists and patients. This of course benefits both the patients and the psychiatrists," Abu el-Haz said. "There are many clients who cannot go to a psychiatrist or they don't have time to do so. This is the reason for the platform; we offer patients online sessions through which they can get treatment for their psychological problems."
The majority of Shezlong's clients are treated for depression, personal disorders or relationship disorders. He said that the clients are on average between 25 and 35 years old; 60% are females and 40% are males.
He noted that there is a mental health crisis in Egypt, as there are only 6,000 psychiatrists for millions of people who have a mental illness. In addition, seeking psychological help is considered a taboo in Egyptian society.
“The stigma has long hindered treatment and recovery — in some cases causing family problems, social isolation and even death,” Abu el-Haz said. However, he emphasized that he is adamant about breaking this social taboo and providing psychotherapy for all patients in Egypt.
Abu el-Haz partnered with psychiatrist Ahmed el-Shamy, who founded the department of psychiatry at the Child Cancer Hospital, and Shezlong was launched in 2015. The startup is part of the Egyptian government’s Technology Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center.
Shamy said that they are now partnering with institutions and giant companies, including the United Nations Development Program and Microsoft, which provides them with a cloud service and technical support.
According to Shamy, the platform is a new idea in the Arab region. However, he noted that it is not new on the international level as similar platforms exist in developed countries.
Shamy also said that most cases he deals with from the Arab countries concern depression. “Most of the time, I encounter the three types of depression that all have common symptoms, including lack of interest, sleeplessness, exhaustion, self-worthlessness and feeling guilty,” he told Al-Monitor.
According to the nongovernmental organization Egyptian Coordination for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF), roughly 160 individuals commit suicide annually in Egypt because of depression. The ECRF also referred to the fact that patients from the onset of their illness do not have access to the right treatment.
Abu el-Haz believes that his startup has the potential to further grow as online therapy is effective. “Patients can talk freely and express their problems through online therapy. Factors such as traffic jams and other people in the waiting room tend to make patients feel uncomfortable,” he said. “Going online is the safest option.”
In Egypt, there are still many people who feel uneasy about seeing a psychiatrist, either because they are afraid of what others may think or they do not have confidence in the therapists.
“I would rather speak with one of my friends or turn to God, instead of going to a therapist,” Ahmed Samir wrote in a Facebook post.
Aya Abdel Kader, however, wrote on Facebook that she would be OK with seeing a therapist: “It is a kind of disease and needs a cure. I would not feel ashamed to go and get treatment."
Shezlong seeks to expand outside Egypt, and intends to negotiate with six psychotherapists from the United States, Canada and Australia. The platform is also currently developing a test that would give participants a full report on their level of anxiety, fear and depression, as an indication for anyone who is in need of a consultation before booking a session with a psychiatrist.
Abu el-Haz said that the startup is planning also to provide therapy via WhatsApp and corporate counseling services for employees. “The new service will be a hit as anyone will be able to talk to the therapist via WhatsApp,” he said.