Taraji P. Henson’s organization, the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation, is named after her late father, who returned from the Vietnam War with mental health issues. For the Oscar-nominated actress, ending the stigma surrounding mental illness in the black community is a deeply personal cause.
In 2003, Henson’s high school sweetheart and ex-boyfriend, William Lamar Johnson, who was the father of her son, was brutally murdered. Two years later, Henson’s father died. After experiencing two major deaths in the family, the “Empire” star was determined to find a therapist for her son. She found the task nearly impossible.
“When we started doing research and I started looking for a therapist that at least looked like him, so he could trust them, it was like looking for a unicorn,” Henson says, explaining there’s only a small percentage of black therapists and psychiatrists in the workforce because the taboo in the African-American community creates a lack of awareness regarding careers in the mental health space.
Henson is hoping to break that cycle. ”We’re walking around broken, wounded and hurt, and we don’t think it’s OK to talk about it,” she says. “We don’t talk about it at home. It’s shunned. It’s something that makes you look weak. We’re told to pray it away. Everyone was always asking me, ‘Do you have a charity?’ 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. Not everything is fixed with a pill.”
Henson is not just another celebrity who’s slapped her name on a charity. In the middle of the press tour for her next movie, “The Best of Enemies,” she spent her lunch break with struggling young girls at a Washington, D.C., school, along with her childhood best friend, Tracie Jenkins, the executive director of her foundation. “I know she’s tired, but for her, this work is so important that she’s willing to find any sliver of a moment that she can,” Jenkins says.
While her stardom has given her the platform to be the face of her charity, Henson’s fame has brought unexpected pressures. “It was fun at first, but the older I get, the more private I want to be,” the actress says. “I think there’s a misconception with people in the limelight that we have it all together, and because we have money now and are living out our dreams, everything is fine. That’s not the case. When they yell ‘Cut’ and ‘That’s a wrap,’ I go home to very serious problems. I’m still a real human.”
Henson reveals that the constant attention that comes from being on a hit TV series has contributed to her own mental health issues. ”I suffer from depression,” she says. “My anxiety is kicking up even more every day, and I’ve never really dealt with anxiety like that. It’s something new.”
To handle her depression, Henson stepped back from social media and she regularly sees a therapist. “That’s the only way I can get through it,” she says. “You can talk to your friends, but you need a professional who can give you exercises. So that when you’re on the ledge, you have things to say to yourself that will get you off that ledge and past your weakest moments.”
Henson’s mission is to get more therapists into schools.
“We have to reverse these kids going straight from school to prison,” she says.