Taraji P. Henson visited Washington, D.C. on Friday where she advocated for mental health in the black community.
The actress appeared before the Congressional Black Caucus Emergency Taskforce on Black Youth Suicide and Mental Health on Capitol Hill.
The “Empire” star, 48, whose passion for fostering awareness of mental health issues within the black community led her to found the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation, became emotional as she spoke about an issue close to her heart.
“We, in the African-American community, we don’t deal with mental health issues,” she said in her opening statement. “We don’t even talk about it. We’ve been taught to pray our problems away.”
This is a cycle, she declared, that begins in childhood and needs to be broken so future generations won’t have such a difficult time.
“We can’t give up on our kids, and I think that’s where it starts,” she continued. “I think we [have to] implement mental illness or mental health as education in school. It needs to be a subject just like sex education was or physical education. We need to talk about it. The more we talk about it, the more people will feel like they can talk about it. I really don’t know how to fix this problem. I just know this suicide rate is rising. I just know the ages of the children that are committing suicide are getting younger and younger.”
As a mother, Henson said that she simply can’t comprehend young children thinking about ending their lives, becoming emotional as tears streamed down her cheeks.
“It breaks my heart knowing that 5-year-old children are contemplating life and death,” she said. “I just… that one is tough for me. So, I’m here to appeal to you, because this is a national crisis. When I hear of kids going in bathrooms cutting themselves — you’re supposed to feel safe at school. I’m here using my celebrity, using my voice to put a face to this, because I also suffer from depression and anxiety, and if you’re a human living in today’s world, I don’t know how you’re not suffering in any way.”
Henson’s foundation is named for her father, who struggled with mental health challenges after returning from his tour of duty during the Vietnam War.
“One in five Americans suffer from mental illness,” states the foundation’s website. “African-Americans are the least likely population to seek treatment. We were taught to hold our problems close to the vest out of fear of being labelled and further demonized as inapt, weak and/or inadequate. African-Americans also have a history of being misdiagnose, so there is mistrust associated with therapy.”
The aim of the foundation is to remove the stigma surrounding mental health, in addition to “providing scholarships to African-American students who seek a career in the mental health field; offer mental health services and programs to young people in urban schools; and combat recidivism with the prison system.”