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Destigmatization Through Digitization: Abu Dhabi's MindTales Aims To Promote Mental Health Wellness With Its Artificial Intelligence-Powered Platform Launched in 2020, MindTales is a part of Abu Dhabi's Hub 71 ecosystem, with the startup making use of latest technologies -artificial intelligence in particular- to provide mental health services on an online platform.

By Aalia Mehreen Ahmed Edited by Aby Thomas

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

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Viktorija Aksionova, co-founder, MindTales

More than 70% of people with mental health issues across the globe are unable to receive the help they require due to a lack of access to therapy and counselling. And this explains the situation Viktorija Aksionova, founder of Abu Dhabi-based tech startup MindTales, found herself dealing with not too long ago. "A year and a half ago, I was burnt out, stressed, and searching for professional help," she remembers. "What I wanted was a well-rounded, evidence-based and affordable mental health platform in the UAE, but this seemed impossible to find. After conversations with others, I realized I wasn't alone in searching for this kind of support. That's when I decided to embark on this journey, and build a mental wellness platform for the region."

Aksionova's efforts in this regard is what resulted in the creation of MindTales, a startup aiming to break down mental health stigmas in the UAE by using technology to increase accessibility to emotional health support. Launched in 2020, MindTales is a part of Abu Dhabi's Hub71 ecosystem, with the startup making use of latest technologies -artificial intelligence in particular- to provide mental health services on an online platform. "Our wellness model has two main branches; our extended wellness games and psychological resources, coupled with our online counselling platform," Aksionova explains. "The games provide a light-hearted, informative approach to preventing mental health challenges from escalating and tackling the tough questions that might otherwise seem daunting or stigmatized, whereas users who find themselves in a concerning place can reach out to our network of counsellors and life coaches for direct help."

Viktorija Aksionova, co-founder, MindTales. Source: MindTales

While MindTales' psychology games and wellness resources are offered free of charge, a premium subscription fee is charged if a user wishes to gain further insights. "Additionally, we receive a commission fee for every counselling session held with our MindTales counsellors and life coaches," Aksionova adds. It's worth noting MindTales' use of a games-based approach to mental health education- multiple human psychology studies over the past few years have shown that using a gamified approach not only creates an easier, more immersive environment to learn better, but that it also has a therapeutic effect on mental health patients.

Ever since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, there's been a rise in the number of people suffering from poor mental health, with reports noting elevated levels of depression and anxiety to be common in communities across the globe. And according to Aksionova, the situation was no different for the people living in the UAE. "The pandemic has undoubtedly impacted the mental health of communities in the UAE," she says. "Just like many places in the world, the COVID-19 crisis exacerbated issues of loneliness, anxiety, and burnout. Over a third of the population has encountered some kind of mental illness during this time, and more than 70% of employees in the region have faced negative deterioration of their mental health."

This would thus explain why there was a demand for MindTales' services as soon as it launched. "MindTales took off during the pandemic, which was a challenge that also gave us unique insights," says Aksionova. "We've experienced fast growth and seen great responses from our users. After the launch of the beta-version of our product at the end of January this year, we've grown by 7% on a weekly basis. Our community's eagerness to support our vision says it all- mental health support is needed now, more than ever!"

Related: How To Understand Your Internal Dialogue Before It Overwhelms You

However, while the statistics on the rise in mental illnesses in the UAE are jarring, there is another set of statistics that is equally worrying. With an increase in discourse surrounding mental health, there has also been an increase in false information about, as well as the stigma associated with, mental illnesses. "This lack of awareness and misinformation, when coupled with mental health stigmas, really exacerbate symptoms of anxiety, depression and other mood disorders," explains Aksionova "79% of the regional population don't ask for help due to stigmas and taboos surrounding mental illness. Feelings of shame and embarrassment deter communities from openly discussing their emotional health."

Aksionova warns against dismissing such false stigmas and myths as just chit chat within a community; on the contrary, these can lead to the creation of an ineffective mental healthcare system. "All of this can make it tough for counselling centers, healthcare providers and other entities to understand where their resources are most needed," she explains. "Without open, accessible services, individuals are at a risk of misdiagnosing their symptoms or seeking medicinal mood prescriptions that aren't needed." While such preconceived notions form a societal issue that, at its very core, need to be fixed through further education and awareness, Aksionova believes that MindTales offers an effective and reliable alternative to deal with the problem at hand- and that's through its provision of mental health support that people can access from the privacy and comfort of their homes.

The MindTales team. Source: MindTales

And the key differentiator of her firm, she says, is in its adoption of telehealth and artificial intelligence- tools that can be revolutionary, if used right. "Telehealth also removes the barrier of inaccessibility, waiting lists, and time to commute to and from your healthcare provider's office," she says. "When it comes to depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders, online support can be just as, or even more, effective than in-person help." It is this sensitivity towards gauging an understanding of a user's comfort, that is perhaps a noteworthy point amid all that Aksionova says. "Although the human presence can't be replaced, leveraging technology does not have to mean comprising client outcomes," she says. "Virtual counselling might feel different, but if it can be as effective in alleviating the symptoms of mental health disorders. And to me, that's a good outcome!"

But Aksionova also notes that while telehealth is an effective alternative to traditional in-person counselling services, there is also no one-size-fits-all solution for the region as a whole. "When it comes to addressing stigmas and accessibility, it's crucial to prioritize understanding what mental health means in the UAE," she says. "There's a lack of empirical research investigating cultural modes of support. Slowly but surely, with the rise of research centers, collaborative studies, and government campaigns, this is improving. At MindTales, we are working towards becoming a leader at the forefront of an artificial intelligence-driven healthcare system in the long run."

MIND OVER MATTER: MindTales founder Viktorija Aksionova lists four daily routines you can make use of to safeguard your mental health

1. Learn to deal with change "Whether it's your professional or personal life that's disrupted, see your life's challenges as an opportunity to strengthen your resilience. Most people underestimate their ability to adapt and thrive after experiencing a tough event. In reality, humans are quick to adapt to changing circumstances. The key is to face your challenges head on."

2. Don't underestimate nature's health benefits "5-10 minutes of sunlight exposure two to three times a week allows your body to produce vitamin D, which keeps your mind and body healthy. Vitamin D protects you against diabetes and various cancers. It can also relieve symptoms of depression."

3. Build a support network "Since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, authentic connection is scarce and lacking. Whether it's going for a daily walk outside or taking a painting class, schedule socially distanced and safe activities to strengthen your friendships and relationships."

4. In challenging times, don't forget gratitude "Maintaining a daily gratitude list of 3-5 items can transform your mental outlook and physical health. Grateful individuals spend less time ruminating on depressive thoughts. They feel connected to their communities, and experience greater satisfaction in their personal relationships."

Related: A Simple Truth: If You Don't Back Yourself, No One Else Will

Aalia Mehreen Ahmed

Features Editor, Entrepreneur Middle East

Aalia Mehreen Ahmed is the Features Editor at Entrepreneur Middle East.

She is an MBA (Finance) graduate with past experience in the corporate sector, and was also co-founder of CyberSWIFTT- an anti-cyberbullying campaign that ran from 2017-2018 as part of the e7: Daughters of the Emirates program.

Ahmed is particularly keen on writing stories involving people-centric leadership, female-owned startups, and entrepreneurs who've beaten significant odds to realize their goals.

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