Taraji P. Henson Gets Emotional About Black Mental Health

By Lindsey Weedston 04/12/19

“The number of black children ages 5-12 who have died by suicide has doubled since the 1990s. This is a national crisis,” Henson said.

Taraji P. Henson

During a speech for Variety’s Power of Women New York lunch, Taraji P. Henson of the critically acclaimed series Empire began tearing up while talking about the plight of black mentally ill youth in the U.S.

“The number of black children ages 5-12 who have died by suicide has doubled since the 1990s,” she said. “This is a national crisis.”

Henson was recently honored by Variety for the work she has done on and off the screen. In addition to becoming the first black woman to win the Critics' Choice Television Award for Best Actress in a Drama Series, she launched the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation in 2018 in order to battle the stigma against mental illness within black communities. The foundation is named after her father, who suffered mental health issues after returning from military service in Vietnam.

“I named the organization after my father because of his complete and unconditional love for me; his unabashed, unashamed ability to tell the truth, even if it hurt; and his strength to push through his own battles with mental health issues,” Henson said in September. “My dad fought in the Vietnam War for our country, returned broken, and received little to no physical and emotional support. I stand now in his absence, committed to offering support to African Americans who face trauma daily, simply because they are black.”

One of the foundation’s goals is to support black students majoring in mental health-related fields in order to increase the number of mental health professionals who intimately understand the difficulties of being black in America.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), only about 25% of black Americans seek out mental health services, while white Americans do so 40% of the time. Much of this gap can be attributed to discrimination as well as barriers caused by racial wealth gaps.

“Misdiagnoses, inadequate treatment and lack of cultural competence by health professionals cause distrust and prevent many African Americans from seeking or staying in treatment,” reads NAMI’s page on African American mental health.

Henson also drew attention to cultural stigma within the black community and fears of being labeled as “weak” or “inadequate.” Due to the long history of racial oppression in the U.S. going back to slavery, black Americans have passed down what Henson’s foundation calls a code of silence through the generations. Because much of mental health treatment requires opening up about one’s issues, creating a group of “culturally competent” mental health professionals is key to ending the national crisis of black mental illness and suicide, Henson said.

“Often, we are asked to seek help from someone who does not look like us, who cannot relate to our stories. We fear we are seen, but not heard because the listener cannot relate to our problems. But, the ability to relate to one another helps us feel understood, helps us to heal. How does one do that if we are branded before we even speak?”

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Lindsey Weedston is a Seattle area writer focused on mental health and addiction, politics, human rights, and various social issues. Her work has appeared in The Establishment, Ravishly, ThinkProgress, Little Things, Yes! Magazine, and others. You can find her daily writings at NotSorryFeminism.com. Twitter: https://twitter.com/LindseyWeedston