In 2006, Taraji P. Henson’s father, Boris Lawrence Henson, passed away from cancer. He was a Vietnam veteran who has seen traumatic things during his tour of war. Mr. Henson suffered openly from mental health issues and had even attempted at one point to take his own life. Throughout all of the scary times, he remained transparent with his family about his struggles.
This past weekend, Taraji P. Henson escaped her filled-to-the-brim schedule for a life-saving cause in his name. The actress spent three days in her native Washington D.C. to make a testimony on Capitol Hill about the suicide crisis among Black youth. She then followed up with the first ever “Can We Talk?” conference – bringing together counselors, psychiatrists, patients and everyone alike. Workshops tackled everything from “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome” to “Approach to Mental Health In The Black Church” went to the root of our issues.
ESSENCE had the pleasure of following Taraji’s journey throughout the three-day weekend. Prior to her testimony before the Congressional Black Caucus, an admittedly nervous Henson spoke to us about how much is at stake. “It’s personal for me,” she says. “I’ve experienced mental illness in my family. I’ve certainly seen it in the community and even in the workplace. When it comes to African American people, we don’t deal with it. We pray about it, we shun it, we just don’t talk about it. How are we going to help ourselves if we don’t allow ourselves to be vulnerable?”
In speaking to the many experts that attended her conference, Taraji learned that Black trauma dates all the way back to slavery. “When the baby’s crying in a crib, we go, ‘Did you feed that baby? Did you change that baby? Let that baby cry it out.’ But that’s a slave mentality passed down to us from the cotton fields, when mothers had to leave their babies on a tree branch, and they had to let the babies cry.”
There’s also the “strong Black woman” concept – a seemingly uplifting idea that puts unfair expectations on us. “The mindset of the strong Black woman [is], ‘I don’t need your help. I can do it myself. I can carry all ten bags and my baby.’ But that’s not the position. It’s okay to need help. It’s okay to be vulnerable…It’s okay not to be strong sometimes.”
Luckily, Taraji isn’t the only celebrity unafraid to be vulnerable. This weekend, her friends Jennifer Lewis and Charlamagne Tha God, both of whom have been open about their struggles with bipolar disorder and anxiety, respectfully, traveled to D.C. to take part in the discussion. Lewis, an outspoken, no-nonsense Hollywood veteran, was brought to tears as she recalls a dark time in her life where she self-medicated with alcohol. “I was so out of control when I was not medicated,” she tells the audience tearfully. “I got so drunk, only the yellow lines [in the road] got me home. I woke up and said, ‘dear God, I could have killed a whole family last night.'”
The touching stories didn’t end there. During panels and open forums, attendees shared heartwrenching stories of folks whose only point of entry into psychiatric care was the emergency room. Black men and women who were told by their families that their depression was all in their head. Patients who claim counselors fall asleep during their sessions. Their stories spoke to an overwhelming lack of culturally competent mental health providers. Taraji was shocked to learn that many enter the psychology field simply as a means to an end. “I’ve learned the United States will not give the top surgeon [positions] to foreigner doctors. So the way these doctors get their credits when they come here is through psychiatry. That’s the easy way in, and so many doctors that don’t even want to be doing it.”
Taraji says there are constant reminders of how necessary this conference is for Black youth. “[A child] just reached out to me in my DM because she saw what I did today,” Taraji says. “She’s 14, and she said in two weeks five of her classmates committed suicide. She’s 14, and she’s trying to be the adult and get awareness out. That’s our job.”
Through the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation, Taraji is taking a multi-prong approach to turn this all around. First, she’s encouraging Black college students to consider a field in psychology. She’s also pushing for mental health services to be made available in schools. “Some parents bully their own children,” she points out. “That’s why it’s important that we have trained eyes in a school that can know when a kid is ‘off,’ when something’s wrong.”
Taraji’s foundation is raising money to fund therapy for those who need it but don’t have the resources. If you would like to donate to Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation cause can text “Can we talk?” to 41444.