Bridging the Mental Health Gap in Education for Students Who Need It Most

How Hurdle’s partnership with Baltimore’s Young Kings’ Leadership Academy is increasing access to culturally responsive counseling services for Black male students.

Kevin Dedner, MPH
Published in
6 min readMar 10, 2021


Image provided by YKLA

Discussions about mental health in America are evolving. There is a mental health crisis growing in the wake of Covid-19. This ‘long tail’ of the pandemic is forcing the country to grapple with the surging demand for mental health services. Parallel to this, policymakers are connecting the dots when it comes to acknowledging racism as a public mental health crisis. At the heart of this perfect storm? Underserved Black and Brown communities living in mental health deserts. In a special series, Hurdle offers up three examples of how its community partnerships can help quell this perfect storm. Read Part I: The Role of the Church in Improving Mental Wellness.

For part two of this series, we sat down with Ciera Daniel, Co-founder of Baltimore-based Young Kings Leadership Academy (YKLA) to talk about the organization’s novel approach to integrating mental health services in their urban education program. YKLA serves Black male middle school students in Baltimore and illuminates their full potential by providing unique learning opportunities beyond the classroom. Prior to COVID-19, YKLA supported students in the school setting by providing academic interventions and unique leadership experiences in a risk-free learning environment. Last year, they began transitioning their model to meet the demands of the changes that COVID-19 has caused. As a part of YKLA’s transition, Daniel and Co-founder Rudy Lee Daniel III, M.Div, leveraged Hurdle’s culturally relevant teletherapy platform to address the students’ growing need for mental health services during the pandemic. As schools begin to open their brick n’ motor doors, the YKLA-Hurdle partnership offers a model for how to integrate culturally relevant therapy and counseling services for marginalized communities.


Young Kings Leadership Academy began working with Hurdle in 2020, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. What prompted you to reach out?

Daniel: I came across Hurdle through an Instagram ad. I was attracted to their approach to culturally relevant counseling and followed them on social media.

At YKLA, we serve Black male middle school students in Baltimore, which is a very specialized demographic that has different needs than the general male adolescent population. Research on adolescent development of youth in urban areas has shown that many teachers in America’s urban areas lack the first-hand experience needed to connect with their Black male students. Additionally, it is well-documented that from Kindergarten to twelfth grade, Black students, and Black male students, in particular, are more likely to receive disproportionate behavior infractions caused by implicit bias in school, unlike their white counterparts. At the same time, there is a dearth of counselors and therapists who are properly trained to support Black male students through authentic connection and address ‘racially provocative’ and culturally relevant topics. As a result, from the counselor’s office to the classroom, Black students — Black male students, in particular — learn to conceal their culture and their challenges. Combined, this creates a high-risk learning environment for them and higher rates of missed or terminated counseling sessions. Like so many other areas of racial disparity, the pandemic only intensified this challenge. In the spring of 2020, we decided to lean into our mental health service offerings for students when the pandemic hit. We knew we were going to need access to the type of therapists Hurdle offers — therapists that are licensed, background checked, and receive ongoing evidence-based training to improve cultural humility and responsiveness. So, we reached out.

What was YKLA’s approach to assessing the mental health needs of their students?

Daniel: When the coronavirus hit, we did a needs assessment, surveying the families of YKLA students. One of the clearest takeaways from this assessment was the number of students and parents who said they wanted mental health services — 94% of them expressed this need. Many of the students were showing signs of disengagement at home. In this same survey, parents indicated a strong preference for their kids to have access to Black male mentors. Parents felt like their kids would be more inclined to open up to a mentor or counselor who could honor their culture and understood their experience more intimately than someone who did not come from a similar background. This presented a great opportunity to partner with Hurdle.

We reached out to the Hurdle team and collaborated with them to create a user-friendly landing page for students and parents to sign up for mental health and wellness sessions with their network of therapists and counselors. YKLA covered the cost for the sessions if the families didn’t have health insurance and couldn’t afford to pay, or if their health insurance didn’t cover things like this. All they had to do was go to the landing page to sign up, and indicate their needs and preferences with regards to the type of counselor or therapist. Additionally, Hurdle’s team helped YKLA identify key mental health indicators that could be affecting students’ academic life. We collaborated with Hurdle to create an anonymous, HIPAA-compliant assessment that outlined areas we should monitor in order to determine how best to support the students.

What are some of the best practices you can share with other leaders of urban education programs who are trying to integrate mental health services in their programming?


  • Collaboration is key. We collaborated with Hurdle to determine best practices for how out-of-school time (OST) programs — or urban education programs — could collaborate with mental health partners to create educational environments that really listen to students to determine what their needs are. To address their needs, it’s important that we figure out ways to make services like Hurdle’s more accessible.
  • Become better listeners of our Black male students. We have to talk about the psychological challenges that young Black men are facing as the ‘Trayvon generation.’ While the anti-Black violence is not new, this generation has increased exposure to media coverage of it, and in particular, of Black males being mistreated by police and authorities. We have to assume that this generation is internalizing what they see in the news and on their screens in a way that youth their age have never before done. It’s important that we honor that and take the time to listen and think considerably about what their needs are. At YKLA, we consider ourselves co-collaborators with the students. We partner with them to shape the services we provide. The team at Hurdle has equipped YKLA with the means to do this effectively for our mental health services.

“At YKLA, we have made a point to slow down and listen to our community and honor their reality. Partnering with companies like Hurdle can help us address the exacerbated needs gap that the remote educational environment of the last year has created.” –Ciera Daniel, Co-founder of YKLA

  • We can’t afford to dismiss the ways COVID changed our students’ lives. The world has been quick to meet the demands of the ‘new world order’ that the pandemic created at a pace that is unreasonably fast. It is taking its toll on everyone, especially students. This denial and continued practice of cognitive dissonance directly impacts the way our students see themselves in the world, and their own self-image. How we meet students’ basic physiological and safety needs — as it relates to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs — throughout the pandemic has shifted. And, the severity of their needs has escalated. Prior to COVID, there were already great inequities in the mental health of Black male adolescents in cities like Baltimore. For example, young Black males in poverty are often tasked with taking on more caregiving responsibilities and burdened to be financial contributors in their home or for themselves from a young age. COVID created additional obstacles to employment, childcare options, food, transportation, and other social services. As a result, these types of pressures for young Black males have been magnified to an intolerable degree. At YKLA, we have made a point to slow down and listen to our community and honor their reality. Partnering with companies like Hurdle can help us address the exacerbated needs gap that the remote educational environment of the last year has created.

Kevin Dedner, MPH serves as Founder and CEO of Hurdle (formerly Henry Health). Hurdle is mental healthcare for invisible barriers. As the leading culturally intentional mental health provider, Hurdle provides a comprehensive suite of mental health services and self-mastery tools to employers and payers to meet the needs of their employees and members.



Kevin Dedner, MPH