UAE: Residents turn to counsellors abroad amid high mental healthcare costs

While some cited the cost, others wanted someone who could understand their background and culture


Nasreen Abdulla

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Image used for illustrative purpose. Photo: File
Image used for illustrative purpose. Photo: File

Published: Wed 17 Jan 2024, 6:00 AM

Last updated: Wed 17 Jan 2024, 11:43 PM

American expat Jack (name changed for privacy reasons) was visiting a therapist in person in the UAE before he decided to look for someone online, having burnt through the insurance limit he had on mental health therapy. “I had a system where I was co-paying 20% for each session,” said the media professional. “By about the 10th session, I had reached the limit of my insurance, which was Dh5,000, and it was too expensive for me to continue paying on my own.”

That is when the Dubai resident turned to an online mental health platform based in the US. “I was born and raised in the US, so I wanted someone who would understand my family dynamics,” he said. “It has worked out well for me because I am paying roughly $50-$70 per hour. The therapists are very well trained and I think for the same quality of help in the UAE, I would have to pay at least Dh1,000 per hour.”

Several UAE residents are increasingly turning to online therapists from other countries for a number of reasons. While some cited the cost, others wanted someone who could understand their background and culture. Some of the online mental health platforms had options for patients to pick their counsellor on a variety of factors including religious outlook, mental health factors and spirituality. Patients could also select if they wanted their counsellors to challenge their beliefs, help them set goals and support them to work through their grief among other things.

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Long run

Dubai resident U.D. has been having mental health therapy sessions in the UAE and outside for many years. “When I did marriage counselling in Dubai, each session cost about Dh1,200,” she said. “Other mental health services in Dubai cost between Dh350 and Dh800. If I am prepared to drive down to Sharjah, it might go down to Dh275 per session but with a junior professional. Compared to that, when I turned to an American online platform, I could find a much more experienced and empathetic counsellor for a much more economic rate.”

The entrepreneur said that other factors like ease of access and not having to drive anywhere also contributed to her decision. “Mental health is not like physical health in that you go to a doctor, get medicines and you get well,” she said. “For mental health treatment, you are easily looking at six months or more for it to make a difference.”

For the 37-year-old, it was also important for her to change her therapists occasionally. “When you have been doing mental health therapy for as long as I have been, you quickly realise that there is only so much that a therapist can give you,” she said. “Either your needs change or there are certain areas in which the therapist is not able to help you. Sometimes the therapist will suggest taking a break or you will feel that you are not getting the help you need any more. This could happen after a year or years of therapy. Then you need to find someone who will then meet your needs.”

According to U.D., the most important thing is to focus on getting the most appropriate help needed at that particular time in life.

Life crisis

For Indian expat S.Y., it was his wife’s deteriorating mental health that prompted him to reach out to a therapist in his home country. “She came to Dubai with our newborn baby,” he said. “So her postpartum issues, combined with a huge change in support system and surroundings caused her massive adjustment issues. Additionally, she was unable to find a job here. This rendered our financial situation to be very precarious. She felt like she was burdening me by being here and was frustrated all the time. So I decided to get her help from India.”

S.Y., who works as a visual design professional, said he opted to go for online counseling sessions largely because of the culture. “I felt like a therapist from our home country would be able to understand her issues of coming from a huge joint family and struggling to cope with a newborn baby here,” he said. “That is not something a therapist from the Western world will necessarily understand. She has been doing sessions for a few months and I already see a huge difference.”


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