Taraji P. Henson Focuses on Mental Health

Medically Reviewed by Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH on February 04, 2020
8 min read

Don’t call Taraji P. Henson a “strong black woman.” Her portrayal of the ultimate strong black woman, Cookie Lyon, in the hit Fox series Empire may have garnered Henson a Golden Globe award and two Emmy nominations, but she has words about that archetype. And miss her with “black girl magic,” too, while you’re at it.

“People expect black women to be strong. We’re invincible. We’re magical, majestic, something other. You can shoot us down and plow us over, and we’ll still be a beacon for our people,” she says. “No, if you shoot me I’m going to bleed out and die. Ain’t no black girl magic in that. Why can’t we just be human?”

Being human and vulnerable, and needing help, is exactly what Henson is trying to draw attention to as she speaks out about the mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, and suicide, facing the black community.

She founded the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation, named in honor of her father who suffered mental health challenges after his service in Vietnam, to help address those issues.

The foundation combats the stigma surrounding mental health in the black community and increases access to culturally competent therapists through its BLHF Resource Guide and scholarships for students of color interested in psychology. In a pilot project aimed at providing mental health support in urban schools, BLHF has partnered with PROJECT 375 to provide Youth Mental Health First Aid Training and trauma-informed curriculum workshops in eight public schools in Washington, DC.

And in April, amid news that the black community has been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, the foundation launched an initiative offering free teletherapy sessions to African Americans in underserved areas. Individuals with life-changing stressors and anxiety related to the coronavirus will have the cost for up to five individual sessions defrayed on a first-come, first-served basis until all funds are committed or exhausted.

“We’ve never been through anything like this. It’s new for all of us and it’s frightening,” Henson told Essence magazine. “If you were already suffering from mental issues, this doesn’t help. Most people in underserved communities can’t afford health care. And you should never have to choose between a meal and your mental health. So I felt like I needed to do something.”

 “COVID-19 is hitting the black community hard for many reasons, such as inequality in health care, housing, and employment,” Henson says. She notes that in Michigan, for example, African Americans make up 14% of the state’s population, but account for a third of positive coronavirus tests and 40% of deaths in the state. In Louisiana, about 70% of people who have died from COVID-19 are black, even though only one-third of the state’s population is.

“Multigenerational families living in the same household will be broken by this. We have grandmas raising grandchildren, aunts and uncles living in the same small quarters. How can they socially distance? Where can they go? Being able to afford the support and therapy that is needed at a time like this would be a huge burden on already shattered families. No one should have to ponder choosing between mental health and a meal,” Henson says.

Available clinicians are listed on the foundation’s website resource guide on its website (borislhensonfoundation.org). Supporters can also text “nostigma” to 707070 or donate on the website.

Black Americans use mental health services at about half the rate of whites, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. And a national survey found that suicide attempts among black adolescents rose by 73% between 1991 and 2017, even as such attempts fell for all other ethnic groups. “It’s a national crisis. We’re passing down trauma and dysfunction, generation after generation,” Henson says. “But we’re not getting the help we need because we were taught to hold our problems close to the vest out of fear of being further demonized as weak or inadequate.”

Destigmatizing mental health in the black community and making culturally competent therapists available is essential, says Angela Neal-Barnett, PhD, director of the Program for Research on Anxiety Disorders among African Americans at Kent State University in Ohio and the author of Soothe Your Nerves: The Black Woman's Guide to Understanding and Overcoming Anxiety, Panic, and Fear.

“Getting help can mean the world, can make the difference between suffering with depression or anxiety for 10 or 20 years or only experiencing it for 6 months. People in our community often equate mental illness with craziness. If you’re depressed or anxious, you’re not ‘crazy.’ You’re depressed or anxious, and we can help you with that, the same as a doctor would help if you had pneumonia or a heart attack,” Neal-Barnett says.

Henson knows that all too well. Her powerhouse career has inspired many young black women and men—from her 2001 breakthrough in the film Baby Boy, to her long-running role as Detective Joss Carter in the sci-fi crime drama series Person of Interest, to her epic performance as NASA scientist Katherine Johnson in the film Hidden Figures. In 2016, she released her best-selling autobiography, Around the Way Girl, and was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people. But as her professional life was skyrocketing, Henson was struggling.

It started with the February 2012 death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, a black high school student shot by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman while walking home carrying an iced tea and a package of Skittles. Henson’s son, Marcell, was 3 years younger than Martin at the time—and she became increasingly overwhelmed by anxiety.

“I became very concerned for my son. For all my loved ones. I became aware that this would be an issue I would be dealing with for the rest of my life,” she says.

And the litany of young black men killed by police or armed civilians in the years since Martin’s death constantly runs through her mind: Tamir Rice. Philando Castile. Oscar Grant. Botham Jean. She worries about Marcell as well as her husband, retired football player Kelvin Hayden, with whom she tied the knot in April. “I wake up in the middle of the night and I can’t go back to sleep. I’m constantly waiting for the phone call. If I can’t reach my son on the phone, I think they shot him. Anxiety is something I work on every day because I have black men in my life who I love.”

And that’s why she has no patience for the “strong black woman” trope. “My life was going well, and bigotry and racism intervened and now it is forever changed. Don’t make me strong behind it. You’re not allowing me my process. My rage. Instead, let’s start a conversation and stop walking on eggshells.”

Part of that conversation, Henson says, is the way that the mental health field fails to meet the needs of the African American community. With all of her resources, it took Henson years to find a therapist who could help her. “I went through quite a few bad ones, where I’d leave feeling worse than when I went in,” she says. “I was talking to my friend Gabby [actress Gabourey Sidibe] about it, and she said, ‘You need to go see my doctor.’ I fell in love with that woman, and I’m still asking her to marry me. She forces me to hear myself. She gets it.”

Through her foundation, Henson aims to connect others with culturally competent therapists like hers. “We have a curated list of therapists from all over the country who get our issues, and it’s going to keep growing because therapists have also been looking for something like this. They don’t have to be black, but they do have to understand, to be sensitive,” she says.

Art has imitated life this season on Empire, as Cookie has also sought therapy. “Cookie’s human and Cookie needs help, too,” Henson says. “And people are invested in characters, so I hope someone will think, ‘If Cookie can go to therapy, maybe it’s OK for me to do it.’ People fear that going to therapy says that something is wrong with them.

“Well, yes, something is wrong with you! You’re trying to function through trauma. Go and work on it with somebody who can help you find the change you’re looking for.”

The past few years have been a revolution in self-care for Henson. In addition to working on mental wellness with her therapist, she’s transformed her the way she eats after a scary bout with gastritis, an inflammation of the stomach lining. She’d been having nagging digestive symptoms for years, the result of years of gulping coffee first thing in the morning.

“I drink coffee very rarely now, and my diet is 90% plant-based,” she says. “I do allow myself chicken and seafood—seafood is my thing!”

With Empire in its final season, Henson is also diving into new ventures, including the TPH hair line she’s been working on for more than a decade, launched at Target in January.

“I was having issues keeping my scalp clean when my hair was underneath a weave. Everyone focuses on hair care, but not on scalp care,” she says. “How do you get product through braids or an extension to your scalp? So I created a tri-touch applicator that is thin enough to get through the weave and get to your scalp. And from there, I’ve branched off into 25 other products that take care of all types of hair.”

After the final episode of Empire airs this month, what’s ahead for her? “This show is going out with a bang,” she promises. “You’re going to be in your feelings, that’s the Empire way. I’ve got some exciting things coming up after that, but I can’t say anything yet. I’m looking forward to life after Cookie, though. While it’s been wonderful creating someone so iconic, it’s bittersweet. She gets on my nerves. She’s a lot! And I’m a character actress, so I’m always looking for the next character.”

But the foundation remains her passion. “I may not be able to fix the mental health crisis among black people in this lifetime, but I know I helped get the ball rolling. I feel like people were waiting for this so they could be set free. All it takes is one. Then you don’t feel so alone.”

If Taraji P. Henson has inspired you to consider seeking mental health care, what do you need to know to get started? Clinical psychologist Erlanger “Earl” Turner, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at Pepperdine University in the Graduate School of Education and Psychology and host of the mental health podcast “The Breakdown with Dr. Earl,” has tips:

  • You don’t need a diagnosis to work with a therapist. “A number of my patients do not have a diagnosis like anxiety or depression. They come to work with me on daily stressors, relationship problems, and other life issues.”
  • Therapy doesn’t have to be a long-term commitment. “Many people assume that they have to see a therapist every week, or that they’ll have to commit for 6 months or a year. Not necessarily so. Therapy is about getting you to a place where you feel like you have the skills to manage the things you’re dealing with. There is no firm timeline for that.”
  • It’s OK to ask about financial options. “Therapy can be expensive. Some therapists have sliding scales based on income, and those may not always be advertised on their websites. Bring that up when you’re talking to a therapist.”
  • Interview your therapist before starting treatment. “The small number of black professionals in fields like psychology and psychiatry means that not everyone will be able to find a therapist who ‘looks like them.’ Ask therapists how much training and experience they have working with people from your background, and on your specific issues.”