Actress Taraji P. Henson spoke on mental health issues affecting young African Americans on Friday at a congressional hearing. As it started, she said, “I’m here to appeal to you because this is a national crisis. I am here using my celebrity, using my voice, to put a face to this, because I also suffer from depression and anxiety. If you’re a human living in today’s world, I don’t know how you’re not suffering in any way.”
This past April, the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) created a task force to help with the identification of mental health issues that are affecting Black teens. Since the task force's inception, they have had numerous hearings regarding mental health along with the increased number of suicides among Black youth. Taraji decide to attend because the issues are near and dear to her heart. She founded the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation, which exists to "eradicate the stigma around mental health issues in the African-American community" according to the foundation's website. The foundation is named after her late father.
Topics she spoke on at the hearing include: the pervasive effects of social media, the normalization of gun violence, and the lack of mental health education in American school systems. She said, “We in the African American community — we don’t deal with mental health issues. We don’t even talk about it.”
This work isn't far from Taraji's background. Before she became a bankrolled actress, she was a special education teacher, so heart is definitely in the right place with these issues. She told the CBC about a profound and lasting experience while being a teacher.
“I thought I was going to a school for special needs kids and when I got there, I was in a room full of all black young males, labeled special ed. None of them were in wheelchairs, they could all speak, they could walk, they had all of their facilities.” After getting to know the students personally, she realized most of them were going home every night to homes where parents were not present, a cause of mental health issues. She spoke further and said, “When I proceeded to try and teach these young men, they believed this label that had been placed upon them — ‘I’m special ed, Ms. Henson, I can’t learn that."
The Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation hosted a conference on the stigma of mental illness in the African American community in DC, her hometown this past Friday, June 7th and it ran throughout the weekend. Any funds the conference received will go towards covering therapy for African Americans who cannot afford to do so on their own. She closed by saying, “We need each other. This is me reaching across the table, trying to lend a helping hand in the best way I can. We have to save our children.”
As a part of the conference, she hosted a a benefit dinner entitled, "Can We Talk". Actress, singer, and activist Jenifer Lewis received the inaugural “I Rise” Award for her work to fight the stigma around mental illness and actually going to receive mental health care. The Keynote speaker of the night was Dr. Altha J. Stewart, who is the first African American and the first woman to be named President of the American Psychiatric Association. Other notable names in attendance were Morris Chestnut, Charlamagne Tha God, Traci Braxton, Roz White, and Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman.