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Taraji P. Henson Is on a Mission

The actress opens up about her anxiety and how she’s working to destigmatize mental health issues.

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Photo of Taraji P. Henson on a red carpet
Richard Shotwell/Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP
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Taraji P. Henson is known for keeping it 100, whether she’s speaking out about the racial and gender pay gap in Hollywood or reclaiming her time during her acceptance speech at the 2016 Golden Globes. The Empire star has remained real and relatable in part because, in addition to being fierce on red carpets and magazine covers, she’s unafraid to share the struggles that have come with her triumphs.

Mental health in our community is a cause that has affected Henson deeply and she’s using her platform to speak out about it. The Oscar-nominated actress recently spoke with Variety about the topic of mental health in the Black community. “We’re walking around broken, wounded and hurt, and we don’t think it’s OK to talk about it,” she said. “We're told to pray it away. Well, dammit, this is going to be my calling, because I’m sick of this. People are killing themselves. People are numbing out on drugs.”

Last month, she testified in front of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) Taskforce at the “Mental Health in the Black Community” forum, also kicking off a conference and fundraiser.

In 2003, Henson’s ex-boyfriend and high school sweetheart, William Lamar Johnson, father of her son, was murdered. At the time, she was a struggling actress and single mother raising her then-9-year-old son, Marcell. Two years later, she suffered another blow when her father passed away.

Though devastated and reeling from those two losses, Henson immediately went into protective mama mode. Determined to get her son counseling to help him cope and break the cycle of pain and denial that had plagued her father, she was shocked at the dearth of Black therapists.

Last year, Henson started the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation to fight the stigma surrounding mental illness and empower us to seek help. “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. My dad fought in The Vietnam War for our country, returned broken, and received little to no physical and emotional support. I stand in his absence, committed to offering support to African Americans who face trauma daily, simply because they’re black,” she states on the foundation’s website.

As she plans for her upcoming wedding to retired NFL player Kelvin Hayden, Henson is open about how the pressures of both fame and regular daily life have affected her state of mind. “I think there’s a misconception with people in the limelight that we have it all together,” she revealed to Variety. “When they yell ‘Cut’... I go home to very serious problems. I’m still a real human. ... I suffer from depression. My anxiety is kicking up even more every day.” She also told a reporter, “As a parent, I’m constantly scared. I live in constant fear of my son getting pulled over by the cops. That is very real for every black parent. That’s anxiety.”

To care for her own mental health, the star of the recent The Best of Enemies walks it like she talks it by speaking with a therapist twice a week. As she has said, “You can talk to your friends but you need a professional.”

Getting help when you need it
As Black women, we pride ourselves on being fierce and flawless. Overcoming the racist and sexist limitations put on us by society means putting up a front of invulnerability. We feel like we can’t afford to show any chinks in our armor. We can’t admit that we are anxious, depressed or down, so we throw back our shoulders, declare we’re too blessed to be stressed and go out to slay another day.

We may indeed be blessed, but we can also be stressed. According to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, African Americans are 20 percent more likely to report having serious psychological distress than non-Hispanic whites. Recognizing when you could benefit from speaking with a professional — and finding that help — are as critical to your well-being as getting regular physicals, says Catherine Jackson, clinical psychologist and founder of Dr. J’s Holistic Health & Wellness in Chicago. “As a community, African Americans ought to treat mental health the same way we do physical health.”

If you, a friend or loved one is suffering from mental distress, the time to break the silence is now. To find a therapist, ask your primary care physician or your health insurance provider for a referral, or search the internet for mental health professionals in your area. You should also check if your company offers an employee assistance program (EAP), which are designed to provide free, confidential counseling in the short term and referrals if more intensive treatment is needed. The National Alliance on Mental Illness is also a great resource.

If you’d prefer a therapist who is more in tune with you culturally, Therapy For Black Girls, and Melanin & Mental Health are great places to begin your search.