When lifelong worrier Sondos Mleitat was forced to discreetly sneak across her university corridors to visit the mental health counsellor and seek help, it was the prompt she needed to realise the gap in the Palestinian market for services that are easy to access and culturally sensitive.
As an architectural engineering student at Birzeit University who had been struggling with depression and was in dire need of therapy, Sondos felt unable to even speak to a friend or family member about her symptoms.
"Even though I had severe depression, it was not easy for me speak publicly and talk about how I'm breaking barriers by seeking help. It was so restricting that it wasn't even comfortable to talk to my friends about my troubles," says Sondos.
So, the 30-year-old Palestinian from Nablus ditched her corporate job in architectural design and setup Hakini, the first online mental health platform in Palestine.
The app provides mental health services online in Arabic to users in Palestine and the wider Middle East seeking to help those who are nervous about doing so in-person, unsurprisingly this mostly consists of women.
"Women living in a conservative community don't have exposure, awareness or knowledge about how to better understand their feelings or experiences of anxiety, depression, or high levels of stress," explains Sondos. "I read books while at university often, so I gained some idea of what I was going through. So, this is one of the challenges that we try to solve with Hakini."
She also noted the risk of misunderstanding mental health problems which can lead to its sufferers feeling increasingly burdensome and retreat into further isolation, therefore, raising awareness and educating people about emotional wellbeing is vital.
Hakini, which means "talk to me" in Arabic, was co-founded in 2020 with Majd Manadre, who also quit his corporate job as a supervisor in Tax and Financial Consulting at PwC and decided to dedicate his experience in entrepreneurship, finance and business at the startup.
Sondos and Majd met at an international conference on entrepreneurship, where they discussed the importance of having a technological platform that can increase access to therapy and mental health services through innovation and that can provide culturally sensitive support to people in the Middle East.
"The material we provide is not coming from translated content by Western works. Our published content on Hakini is created by Palestinian and Arab mental health professionals that work around the culture here in Palestine and the Middle East, and consider the challenges of their daily life," Majd says.
In Palestine this means living in fear of the next air attack or raid on a home, land or a school. Losing loved ones and being displaced time and again. It is hard to imagine how utterly traumatising that reality is.
Sondos explains that mental health professionals from the West are not equipped to provide suitable interventions for such chaotic situations.
Using post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as an example, she believes the concept and solution was created from a Western perspective and believes that Palestinians' experiences of suffering actually exceed the definition of PTSD.
"The term PTSD was formed in a western country where soldiers, who used to colonise other countries and return, were diagnosed with it. This is not applicable for the Palestinians who have been traumatised for many decades and are the victims of colonisation," explains Sondos.
"That's why we need solutions like Hakini in Palestine. In fact, Arabs living in the US and Europe, are also requesting Hakini because they prefer a service that is more sensitive and understanding to their cultures."
The start-up landscape across the MENA has seen remarkable improvements over the past few years. However, what is particular remarkable about the Palestinian start-up scene is the presence of highly educated, young founders and a high proportion of females.
"A technology solution like Hakini has several advantages, one being the scalability. Your creation can reach thousands and millions easily without needing a physical place. Sustainability is a main reason too along with innovation. We can test new features fast and change and fix things easily, as well as get better insights from customer behaviours and reach out," explains Majd.
"Scalability, sustainability and innovation are the core reasons why we decided to use technology."
The co-founders have observed more interest from governments and the private sector in mental health, particularly since the coronavirus pandemic, which resulted in lockdown measures that impacted everyone economically and socially.
"Unfortunately, not much information was available about how people with severe and common mental health issues can cope during this time, but we are changing that with Hakini," said Sondos. "As our app is accessible to everyone, we hope to create a generation of Palestinians who are more connected with the health of their minds and learn how to take care of themselves better, mentally."