Gail Devers knows what it takes to jump hurdles, and not just the ones she nimbly cleared on the track as an Olympic legend. Before she was a star athlete, she bottomed out of the Olympics in 1988 and for the next three years suffered through excruciating pain and disfigurement until receiving a proper diagnosis — Grave’s Disease — and treatment — a daily regimen to keep her thyroid in check. In her three years spent wandering the proverbial medical desert, physicians routinely dismissed her problems as being “all in her head.”
On her road to recovery, Devers had to dig deep to tap into her own internal well of hope, a hope that hushed the din of doctors telling her she would never run again, or that her pain was ill perceived. Eventually, she found someone who believed in her pain. She began to walk again, then ran, then became a three-time Olympic gold medalist. She grew her fingernails out and decorated them with bright colors and gems, clipping them once every three years to symbolize the time it took to receive a proper diagnosis. And, she altered her stance at the starting line to accommodate her iconographic nails.
Like Devers, I too have wandered the medical desert on a road to recovery. I too learned to recontextualize my hurdles. In October of 2017, I was asked to lunch by Oliver Sims. That afternoon, he asked me a simple question: “Have you considered doing anything in digital health?” Oliver’s inquiry triggered a turning point in my life. I took his question as an invitation to form those hurdles into a relatable experience that yielded a treasure trove of lessons learned for Black men and other minority communities trying to navigate the mental healthcare system. I did this all under the banner of my digital health startup, Henry Health. And this year, like Devers, my team and I at Henry Health are altering our stance in order to hold space for bolder statements of hardship overcome. We are rebranding, taking on a new name: Hurdle.
Therapy as we know it was designed by and for people of privilege. It is filled with invisible barriers that make it harder for People of Color to get the mental healthcare they need and deserve.
That is why from 2018 to 2020, my team and I designed a proof of concept, a philosophical and scientific framework to train therapists in cultural humility and responsiveness. We logged nearly 1000 hours of therapy with patients from all walks of life, and partnered to launch Men Thrive, an online wellness community for Black men that serves as a model for future minority communities in need of our culturally intensive tools. With traction gained in this B2C play, we aim to build from Henry Health’s foundations and scale by selling directly to payers and large employers.
We will always be available as a direct-to-consumer choice for those seeking a safe space of people who understand what it’s like to be you. But this broadening of our base is an important evolution. At Hurdle, our vision for creating equitable behavioral health services rooted in methods of cultural humility requires the eradication of racial myopia in the mental healthcare system — for once and for all. People of Color cannot grow wider shoulders to carry the burden of discrimination. Clearing this hurdle will require a more diverse set of stakeholders to take up the yoke, which is why we are inviting more players to the table. Under our new model, insurers and employers will have the ability to support survivors of systemic racial trauma on their journey to wholeness. This shift underlines our original thesis: If we can help People of Color manage their stress and anxiety, then they will have greater agency to make better health decisions. And better health decisions equate to better health, which translates to that universal currency of saved money for the patient, payer and employer alike.
The congruent timing of Hurdle’s debut — now, in the summer of 2020 when, as Ibram X. Kendi writes “we are living in the midst of an anti-racist revolution” — may, to the unknowing observer, seem uncanny if not strategic. It may very well be those things, but for me personally, this moment has been a long time coming. Six years ago, following the killing of Trayvon Martin, I fell into a depression that left me with daily headaches and a dispiriting malaise. When I decided I wanted to see a therapist, I asked my primary care physician for a referral. He handed me a seven-page printout of therapists in my network with three columns on each page. My selection process consisted of closing my eyes, tracing my finger down a page and calling the therapist I’d unwittingly pointed to. When I didn’t click with the first therapist, I repeated this exercise. I repeated it again and again and again. I saw white therapists and Black therapists, young and old, faith-based and agnostic, and each time, I found myself weighed down by the exhausting task of having to convince them of the importance of my experience in the world as a Black man. When I finally connected with a therapist — Dr. Tony Spann, the man who would become the Chief Clinical Officer of Henry Health years later — it was through a friend’s referral and was just as spontaneous as my pin-the-finger routine.
My journey through the mental healthcare system was both ubiquitous and unique. It is common for People of Color to have their experiences of racial marginalization glossed over in therapy — as too obvious, or too nuanced, or too macro, or too micro, or too uncomfortable of a subject to broach. It was uncommon, as a Black man, for me to persist through the search after several mismatches. According to a study published in Psychiatric Services, a Journal of the American Psychiatric Association, Black people are 50% more likely to drop out of therapy, even though they are 20% more likely to suffer from mental health problems like depression and anxiety. Great achievers like Devers, people who persist to prevail against all odds, they are the exceptional narrative. My persistence and chance happening upon Dr. Spann is an exceptional narrative. I may have cleared the hurdles in mental healthcare through sheer will power and luck, but having arrived on the other side healthier and more whole, I can’t help but do everything in my power to kick the hurdles down so that others might also experience the life they’ve always deserved. Hurdle, then, has been a long time coming, but perhaps for such a time as this.
I recently purchased a painting from a local Black artist, here in D.C. It is a mixed media piece done on wood with acrylic paint tangling hard with charcoal and pencil. Certain sections are intentionally left bare to expose the timber’s raw grain lines. The focal point of the piece contains the faces of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. In it, the artist has paid special attention to the boys’ eyes — they are full of life, mirroring the images that were circulated in the news after their tragic killings, the same images that shook me to my core in 2013, and then again in 2014. Perched above and below the boys are doves. I am particular about the art I bring into my home, a curator of energy, not just aesthetics. When I spoke to the painting’s maker, it was important for me to know what kind of emotions he felt when he created the piece. “Anger, certainly,” he said. “But mostly hope.”
I believe there is power in naming and transmogrifying the tribulations that give rise to growth against all odds, whether through a work of art, or like the decorations that adorned Devers’ nails, or through a rebranding like Hurdle’s. When we triumph over our trauma, when we name the hurdles that once stood in the way of our greatness and in an alchemical shift reclaim them with joy, we shake loose the power they once had over us. Hurdle is home to these kinds of coalescent moments, and we will remain true to this.