May was Mental Health Awareness Month—a critical time to increase public awareness around mental health and fight stigmas that prevent so many people from accessing the services they need. Addressing this stigma is particularly important within the Black community, as African-Americans are 20 percent more likely to report “having serious psychological distress” than white people.
The rates are even worse for Black families living below the federal poverty level as these households are three times more likely to experience psychological distress than other Black households due to factors such as stress, diet, environmental hazards, and exposure to neighborhood violence. Fortunately, a growing number of people are working to change the conversation and improving access to critical resources.
Last year, actress Taraji P. Henson announced the creation of the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation, an organization committed to changing the perception of mental illness in the African American community. As part of the ESSENCE-PolicyLink Mayors Roundtable, Henson joined the mayors for an important conversation about mental health and what they can do is as leaders to address this important issue.
“For so long we’ve been told to pray our problems away, or we looked upon it as a weakness, or we were demonized for even expressing our feelings, therefore we don’t talk about it. We sweep it under the carpet,” she previously told ESSENCE. Henson named the nonprofit after her father, a Vietnam War vet, who battled PTSD and depression after returning to the U.S.
“I figured I would use my celebrity to start a foundation, to at least start talking about [mental health] and then we started pinpointing the problems that we wanted to tackle,” she explained during the roundtable.
One of those issues is getting mental health services and programs to young people in urban schools. Henson saw this need first hand during her time as a teacher. She remembered arriving at school and students discovering a shooting had taken place the night before. “The kids grabbed my hand and they go ‘Miss Henson, Miss Henson, there was a shootout at the school last night. Look!,” she recalled. “They’re showing me bullets that are impaled in the wall of their school and I’m looking at these children and they’re normalizing this. They’re walking around like this is just everyday life. That is a problem.”
Another area the foundation focuses on is giving scholarships to African-American students who seek a career in the mental health field. During the discussion, Mayor Karen Weaver of Flint, Michigan – who is also a clinical psychologist – underscored the importance of this. “There aren’t enough African American providers for these direct kinds of services. We’re under represented, and then we get over represented in the system,” she said.
The conversation underscored the important role local leaders play in increasing access to mental health services for communities across the country. Last year in Denver, Colorado, voters approved a sales tax increase under the Caring 4 Denver initiative to raise funding to treat mental health and addiction, and to shift responsibility from police and jails to treatment centers and therapy. In Baton Rouge, voters approved a property tax increase for a mental health facility that proponents hope will provide the care people need, and unclog jails and courts. There is a strong precedent for such investments working. In 2008, King County, Washington issued a 0.1 percent sales tax to mental health programs, which resulted in 29 percent decline in admissions to the county’s psychiatric hospital and a 35 percent decline in jail bookings.
In addition, local leaders now have clear allies at the federal level. Last month, the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) launched an emergency taskforce focused on the growing problem of suicide and access to mental health care among Black youth. The CBC Taskforce on Black Youth Suicide and Mental Health will convene mental health experts from around the country, raise awareness among Members of Congress and their staff, and identify legislative recommendations to address this crisis. Henson will be testifying before Congress on June 7th.
Mental health intersects with the major policy fights impacting Black households from housing to healthcare to education to criminal justice. When we are too ashamed to discuss mental health, we undermine our ability to fully advocate for Black people. Further, in the absence of intentional policies and programs to help people access treatment, our country will continue to rely on police and jails, which all too often fail Black people. “This is definitely a national crisis,” Henson said. She went on to explain, however, that if leaders continue to talk about mental health and work together, “we can help eradicate the stigma. We can normalize this conversation around mental illness.”
If you or anyone you know is in need of immediate mental health assistance, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress. Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255).