Faced with a rising crisis of mental health, Lavni co-founders Laura Valentine and Marcus King have joined together to further a simple but essential mission: provide accessible, virtual mental health services to under-served populations.
Already, Lavni is providing mental health care to dozens of patients from traditionally under-served communities. The Durham-based startup will be pitching at this year’s CED Venture Connect summit on March 29-30 in RTP.
Faced with new levels of loneliness at the beginning of the pandemic, King was one of many who experienced new mental health struggles during quarantine. After speaking with friends about his feelings, he realized that he wasn’t alone. Especially as a man of color, he didn’t feel as though the mental health service was built for people like him.
“The stigma that comes with mental health is just really tough, especially for this demographic,” King said. “It’s really hard for us to be open, to be vulnerable, to express ourselves—the environment has to be perfect. That’s what I’m doing with Lavni. What I really wanted to do was to create an environment where it’s safe and where it’s easy to find that perfect person the first time.”
King knew he had the passion to make Lavni a reality, but as a data scientist, he needed a co-founder with a background in providing mental health care.
A mutual friend connected Marcus with longtime mental health practitioner Laura Valentine, a licensed mental health provider who has spent her career practicing in poor and under-served communities.
When the pair connected for the first time via Zoom, professional sparks flew. Valentine, too, had been noticing the changing currents around mental health awareness and the surging need for help in the populations she served. She knew firsthand that Lavni would fill a massive gap in care.
“For me it was a no-brainer,” Valentine said. “I wanted to be a part of this because it’s what I do every day as a clinical mental health counselor. I was in the trenches looking at at people struggling with their mental health, looking at our market. This is my passion.”
Before a potential patient scrolls into Lavni’s proverbial doorway, the company looks to make the path to care as smooth as possible. One huge barrier that many patients in under-served communities face is cost.
“No person left behind when it comes to mental health,” Valentine said. “We had to create a platform a service that was affordable, so that that someone who needs those services can have access.”
The first service level, which is free, provides subscribers with mental health content, mentorship and a community of mental health solidarity. The second level—which costs $75 per week (billed monthly) without insurance—provides subscribers with weekly telehealth sessions with licensed mental health providers in addition to the other benefits. Insured patients can opt for the third level, which can provide the same level of care as Level 2 for as little as $0 a month.
Lavni offers three different pricing levels to make sure cost is not a factor for those seeking care.
The virtual nature of sessions allows for those who may not have time to drive all the way to the office or take off work to receive treatment, a model Valentine said is very intentional.
“From an accessibility perspective this is really, really important,” Valentine said. “We were able to have someone see a therapist during their lunch—they can go outside in their vehicle and be able to connect with their mental health provider.”
Another barrier to care that Lavni looks to eliminate is the anxiety that many patients face about meeting a new mental health provider, especially in communities where stigmas about receiving care run rampant. That’s why Lavni has a unique “avatar” feature that allows patients to go “incognito mode” in their sessions with a therapist.
The ability for a patient to hide their face may seem like a small thing or a Metaverse trend, but the co-founders and Lavni’s patients agree—it can have a huge impact.
“You don’t feel that pressure, but it’s something interactive that represents you instead of just the background and black screen,” King said. “I really, really love this feature, especially for the first session. They can get to know the therapist, and to know that person is there to help them. That relationship is built and then they can come up as themselves.”
King is putting his data scientist chops to work elsewhere in the platform. The platform also utilizes an AI-aided system that can expedite the process of post-session note-taking for therapists from an hour to just 10 minutes. Speaking from personal experience, Valentine said this feature is a game-changer for clinicians like herself.
“We want to be there as a clinician, we want to be present, we want to be with that client,” Valentine said. “The last thing we want to do is spend time taking notes.”
Just a few months after its platform went live, Lavni is serving dozens of clients,and is looking to expand its provider base. King is excited that people of color like himself will face less boundaries to care in the future. The more walls the mental health community tears down, the more patients in communities like his own can receive access to care.