DEI / Digital access / Health / Startups

DC startup Hurdle looks to grow digital mental health platform for the Black community  

With a focus on serving people of color and training therapists on cultural humility, the RealLIST Startups honoree has plans to expand across the nation in 2021.

Hurdle CEO Kevin Dedner. (Courtesy photo)

As a Black-led mental health service focused on serving Black clients, Hurdle centered racial justice even before nationwide anti-racism movements in 2020.

“Our narrative is very clear,” said Kevin Dedner, Hurdle’s founder and CEO. “We’re not a company that has to rebrand ourselves for this moment… Serving people and being a company that is interested in serving people of color is in our DNA.”

Dedner started Hurdle in 2018 after personal experiences with depression, work-induced exhaustion, and insensitive therapy sessions inspired him to create better mental health services for the Black community.

In January, the downtown D.C. startup closed a $5 million seed round, led by 406 Ventures and Seae Ventures with participation from F-Prime. With plans to hire, the company was featured on DC’s RealLIST Startups 2021. The company currently provides teletherapy and other services, like a mobile app that provides motivational messages and meditations, all of which are culturally appropriate, Dedner said.

Criticized by some for building too “niche” of a concept, Dedner’s focus on Black and minority communities is essential given inequities of the current mental health system, which “was not designed for everyone,” he said.

“There’s been this historic conversation that Black people were not interested in therapy because of cultural and religious reasons,” Dedner added. “…When you dig deeper and understand the history of therapy in America, there was a time that therapists did not even believe that Black people had the cognitive awareness [to be] good candidates for talk therapy. So we’re really dealing with unraveling a system that is historically inconsiderate of people.”

Statistically speaking, the adult Black community is 20% more likely than other communities to experience serious mental health problems, yet less likely than white to both be screened for depression and receive mental health care. And while some of these topics have entered national discourse through recent anti-racism movements, the issues themselves are systemic.

Read more of Dedner’s writings on the topic.

“When the pandemic hit and then, shortly thereafter, the death of George Floyd, the problem that I had been raising awareness about and screaming to the top of my lungs about, it became very clear to others,” Dedner said.

A week after the video of Floyd’s killing was released, the rate of clinically significant signs of anxiety or depression among Black Americans increased from 36% to 41%, according to The Washington Post.

Hurdle is unique in that its therapists undergo a training based in cultural humility that takes into account how a person’s background may have affected their mental challenges. This is particularly important in serving Black and minority communities, Dedner said, where often the source of mental challenges is rooted in their identity.

“If you have a therapist who is afraid or doesn’t have the bank of experiences to engage around those questions, that therapy is going to most likely fail,” Dedner said.

The training equips therapists with tools to explore these conversations, even if the therapist and client have different cultural backgrounds.

Looking forward, Dedner said Hurdle will be changing up its business model and has plans to expand its influence across the nation. Despite seeing significant growth from Hurdle’s direct-to-customer channel this past year (30%), he is switching to a new model to work directly with payers and employers. The direct-to-customer channel will still be available as a second option.

As for expansion, setting up a nationwide therapy service won’t be easy, as therapists must obtain state-specific licenses, (somes states and areas, D.C. included, temporarily waived this restriction due to COVID-19, but D.C.’s waiver will end on March 31, 2021). Still, Dedner and his team are dedicated to the cause.

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