'I'm also human and I'm going through the same things that others are' – Amna Asif, ReliveNow

Founded in 2018, ReliveNow is one of the first to provide online counselling and therapy services in Pakistan, aiming to bring affordable, convenient therapy sessions to the masses. With its services in higher demand than ever, founder and CEO Amna Asif spoke to us when Pakistan was still under strict lockdown, telling us what the arrival of Covid-19 has meant for her social enterprise: speedily assembling Facebook campaigns and virtual campaigns, tapping into the goodwill of supporters – and remembering just in time to take care of her own mental health, too.

“It’s been pretty strict in Pakistan. No-one can leave their homes after 5pm, and everything is closed after this time. Last week they tried to lift the restrictions a bit, but then shops and markets got so crowded that within a few days they had to put strict lockdown back again. It's really strange. We don't know what's going to be lifted, when we go back to normal. 

When the lockdown was announced here towards the end of March, the biggest thing that came up for me was that the people physically affected by Covid-19 would be fewer in number than those affected in terms of mental health. So that's when I thought about how we can help people with the resources that we have.

We have less than 1,500 mental health professionals, for the total population of 220 million

Our counselling and therapy services have always been online. So I went back and forth with my team and our psychologists, and we came up with a free virtual counselling campaign.

I wanted to do it but I wasn’t sure how I was going to fund it. So it was all out of my pocket in the beginning. We started it all doing a Facebook Live session, promoting the launch of free 15-minute sessions with a therapist on our platform. We felt this would help people to navigate through the uncertainty and the anxiety and just get some tips and tricks to manage themselves and their families  – we have a very young population but most of us live with our parents. 

 

For more behind-the-scenes accounts of what it's like running and sustaining a social enterprise through Covid-19, check out more interviews in our Voices from the Frontline series.

 

An overwhelming response

It got a lot of media attention, and we got support from Facebook’s ad credit programme [which provided free advertising to businesses tackling Covid-19]. A pharmaceutical company funded us for a month which really helped us to reach out to the masses – in the first two days our free virtual clinic had 100 registrations. It was an overwhelming response!

I have a very small team, but a very, very hard-working team. We are a management team of four, with 25 freelance mental health professionals. We’ve had to manage the appointments, the clinic, create content for the campaign, and make sure the blogs, content and promotions go up. It was a lot of hard work because it was very unplanned – it wasn't a part of our strategy for the year. We were literally on our feet 23 hours a day. 

The psychologists that we’re working with have donated their time – one or two hours a day – for free. However, if someone likes talking to that psychologist and then they're willing to have a longer session, they will then pay for that service. Launching the free virtual clinic has meant we have been able to increase the number of clients we have – the number of sessions that we're conducting in a month just shot up. 

This is not our core work. We're not a volunteer organisation, we also have to make sure our business is making money

We plan to keep the virtual clinic running for another three months, at least. We want to see what kind of need is there because, at the moment, we’re the only online support. The government is working on a mental health helpline which would hopefully ease the number of sessions that we're conducting – we’re already fully booked for another two weeks and already conducting 100 sessions a day. 

But this is not our core work. We're not a volunteer organisation, we also have to make sure that our business is making money. Last year, I won a Standard Chartered women in tech programme that gave us prize money of US$10,000. So we've used half of it. And that's how we're sustaining ourselves at this point. 

This campaign is something that we did as a socially responsible company but at the end of the day, I do have to pay my employees. As we go into the next phase of our strategy we are looking for people to support the programme. We're still in the talks at the moment; I'm not really sure what will happen, but I’m positive.

 

What worked for ReliveNow:

  • Quickly designing a new ‘virtual clinic’ product by deploying experts as volunteers
  • Using Facebook to promote and deliver sessions
  • Focusing on paid-for services and longer-term partnerships
  • Taking some time out

 

Under pressure

I personally suffered from anxiety for a couple of years, and it was very difficult for me to find a therapist in Pakistan because there was no online directory or somewhere to easily find out about therapists.

When I kept on researching I discovered that we have less than 1,500 mental health professionals, for the total population of 220 million. That was really alarming. 

We were already struggling when it comes to the economy with the debt and inflation here. A lot of people are unemployed, and the youth population is pretty high but the number of job opportunities are low. And a lot of these individuals are not just supporting themselves, but also a family of three to five people on average. And they're very worried about losing their jobs because there are even less opportunities right now. That’s a lot of mental pressure because if you're the only breadwinner of the family, and you have five mouths to feed, how is that going to work out for another month or two down the line?

The work that had to be done was very stressful, to the point where I couldn't sleep at night

And as for me, to be very honest, I have been very overwhelmed. Obviously I'm also human and I'm going through the same things that others are. I have the same fears. I was very paranoid at the beginning because my mother's diabetic, my father's over 60. The work that had to be done was very stressful, to the point where I couldn't sleep at night. 

But this week I have consciously made a decision not to work at all. I'm trying to take it slow at this point in time and I’ve also told my team to take it slow. We're just getting to grips with the situation that we didn't have time to get to grips with – because we were trying to help other people too!”

Amna was speaking to Sasha Gallick on 15 May. Since then, Pakistan's government has loosened many lockdown restrictions.

Read more about ReliveNow.

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