Taraji P. Henson Hosted Annual Dinner to Erase the Stigma Around Mental Health

Actress Taraji P. Henson hosted the annual "Can We Talk?" benefit dinner in Washington, DC to continue her efforts at building mental health awareness in the African American community. The two-day conference was held by Henson’s fundraising organization, the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation (BLHF). Henson launched the foundation back in 2018 and named it after her late father who was a Vietnam veteran that suffered from PTSD and manic depression, according to Essence.

From June 7 to June 9, the BLHF conference hosted celebrities, therapists, influencers, lawmakers, and community organizations to discuss the stigma surrounding mental health in the African American community and how to end that stigma, according to the foundation’s website.Some celebrities at the conference included Charlamagne Tha God as a keynote speaker, Traci Braxton, Morris Chestnut, Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.), and BLHF Youth Council Ambassador Isan Elba, Essence reported.

Before the benefit dinner on June 7, Henson testified before the Congressional Black Caucus task force on Black Youth Suicide and Mental Health, according to Essence. The Congressional Black Caucus launched the Emergency Taskforce on Black Youth Suicide and Mental Health in April to raise the awareness of mental health issues that Black teenagers may face. During her speech, she told the caucus that the mental health issues that are affecting African American youth are “a national crisis,” HuffPost reported.

“I am here using my celebrity, using my voice, to put a face to this, because I also suffer from depression and anxiety,” Henson said during her testimony, according to the publication. “If you’re a human living in today’s world, I don’t know how you’re not suffering in any way.”

Henson, who was a special education teacher before becoming an award-winning actress, said that mental health issues are not discussed in the African American community. She said the effects of social media, gun violence, and lack of mental health education in schools contribute to the mental health issues Black teens are dealing with, according to HuffPost.

“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,” she said about her experiences as a school teacher. “None of them were in wheelchairs, they could all speak, they could walk, they had all of their facilities.” Henson told the caucus that many of the students she taught did not have parents to go home to at the end of the school day.

“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,’” she said, according to the publication.A National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) study found that nearly 50 percent of youth from age eight to 15 did not receive mental health services in the previous year and that African Americans and Hispanic Americans used mental health services at about half the rate of white people. The 2018 report from the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics found that suicide rates among Black youth were 42 percent lower than white children from ages five to 17, but suicides involving Black youth from age five to 13 were almost double those of white youth.

“We need each other. This is me reaching across the table, trying to lend a helping hand in the best way I can,” Henson said at the hearing, according to HuffPost. “We have to save our children.”

In an interview with People magazine, she discussed her continuing battle with anxiety and depression. She also discussed how hard it was to find a therapist. “It was like looking for a purple unicorn with a 24-carat-gold-horn. I say that jokingly, but it’s serious,” she told the magazine. “The reason why we don’t have many psychiatrists of color, or psychologists of color, or therapists of color, is because we don’t talk about it at home.”

Henson told the magazine that learning about mental health should be part of the school curriculum, and parents should be forced to talk about mental health with their children. “If we can teach children about sex education and physical education, why not mental?” she told People magazine. “That’s where we start attacking this issue: with the children.”

If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

About the Author

Maria Perez is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has an M.A. in Urban Reporting from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. She has been published in the various venues, including Newsweek, Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, City Limits, and local newspapers like The Wave and The Home Reporter.