Taraji P. Henson Wants You to Know Mental Health is key and it is on her mind. The award-winning actress’s next role is as a crusader for mental health awareness.
BY EMIL WILBEKIN
In 2018, Golden Globe-winning actress Taraji P. Henson founded the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation, named for her father, a Vietnam War Veteran who struggled with mental health issues. The first thing we wanted to do was get Black people talking about mental health,” Taraji P. Henson says. “Let’s just get it out there. I’ll say something. I’ll break the ice.”
That’s just what she’s done. Since founding in 2018 the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation (named after her father, a Vietnam War veteran who struggled with both post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar disorder), Henson—who won a Golden Globe for her role as Cookie Lyon on the TV series Empire, having earlier earned an Oscar nomination for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button—has been a tireless advocate for addressing mental health in the Black community. And never have such efforts been so necessary; according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, more than 17 percent of non-Hispanic Black adults in the United States struggle with mental illness, including depression and anxiety.
In the last year, a global pandemic and catastrophic racial reckoning shook the United States to its core and pushed Black America to the brink. I’m speaking to Henson on the first day of Derek Chauvin’s trial for the murder of George Floyd; two weeks later Daunte Wright would be shot and killed by the police in a suburb of Minneapolis, just 10 miles north of the courthouse where the Chauvin trial was being held. The numbers are staggering but not surprising in light of the way issues of race, wealth, and health inequity have been exacerbated in the past year. If that isn’t enough, there are issues within the community that stigmatizes mental health due to religious beliefs, lack of information, criminalization, and medical mistrust.
Through her foundation, a nonprofit that raises money via grants, donations, and events, including a gala, Henson is providing free therapy sessions, funding scholarships for Black students who want to pursue careers in the mental health field, and hosting a Facebook program, “Peace of Mind with Taraji,” which offers viewers an opportunity to learn more about mental illness, see what a therapy session looks like in real-time, and hear testimonies from such celebrities as Gabrielle Union and Mary J. Blige. Henson’s work is an intervention for the Black community in the hope of creating healing, survival, and joy.
She has also been active in trying to change the system from the inside. In 2019 Henson testified in front of the Congressional Black Caucus Emergency Task Force on Black Youth Suicide and Mental Health, saying, “I want to use my celebrity and my voice to put a face to this. This is a national crisis.” Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman applauded her efforts, saying, “We can do the legislative piece…but it is a voice like yours that helps to elevate the discussion so that the people will react to it.”
Here, Henson talks with T&C from her home in Los Angeles about addressing the stigmas around mental health, finding her footing as a philanthropist, and what real change will look like.
What inspired you to create a foundation that would support Black people’s mental health and wellness?
Taraji P. Henson: I was struggling. My son was struggling, and I was trying to find help. It was difficult looking for someone culturally competent or who looks like us so we could feel safe. I was frustrated, and I called Tracie Jade Jenkins, who now runs my foundation. I’ve known her since the seventh grade, and she has suffered from anxiety her entire life. We struck up a conversation, and I was like, “This is amazing.” You know, I can afford [therapy], but just imagine all the millions of Black people who can’t afford it.
Then I started thinking even further. The reason we don’t have many culturally competent therapists or therapists of color is that we don’t talk about it at home. My children don’t even know it’s possible to study this field in college. Something has to happen—we’ve got to talk about it and make some changes.
You had never founded a nonprofit before. Who was a model for you in terms of becoming a philanthropist?
Alicia Keys and Keep a Child Alive. I’m an ambassador, and if I sign my name to anything, I’m not just going to sign my name. I went to South Africa, I made sure that I met the woman who runs the organization there. I saw the work being done with children and how she was saving these babies whose parents were wiped out because of AIDS and being raised by their grandparents. I saw the work.
Your show, “Peace of Mind with Taraji,” is radical in addressing mental health issues in the Black community by incorporating celebrities, real people, and actual therapists.
Our mission was to clear up any misconceptions of what mental health [issues] are like. With PTSD, a lot of people think, Oh, I didn’t go to war, I don’t suffer from that. But most people suffer from PTSD, especially today watching the news—seeing George Floyd get murdered on television and watching it over and over. We needed to make people understand that there are layers to this and put faces to it.
What does change look like?
Legislation, legislation, legislation. Cops have got to stop showing up to situations where someone’s having a manic moment, especially when it’s us because there’s no empathy when it comes to us. When we go to jail, where’s the empathy? You’re going to put me in jail for a disease that I didn’t ask for. That’s like criminalizing me for the color of my skin.