Taraji P. Henson wants African Americans to know that there is no shame associated with seeking mental health care. The actress shared this message over the weekend while hosting an event in Los Angeles to raise funds for the organization she recently founded, the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation. Henson started the nonprofit—named for her father, who struggled with his mental health after serving in the Vietnam War—in order to fight the cultural taboo that discourages many black individuals from speaking up about their mental health struggles or seeking help when they need it.
The magnitude of the problem became clear to Henson when she was trying to find a black psychiatrist for her son, Variety reported.
After the murder of her son's father in 2003 and the death of Henson's dad two years after, the Empire star searched for "someone that he could trust, someone that looks like him and could understand his struggle"—with little luck. “It was like looking for a unicorn," she told Variety. "And the reason that happens is because we don’t talk about it in our community; it’s taboo, it’s looked upon as a weakness or we’re demonized for expressing rage for traumas we’ve been through."
Talking to her white friends, many of whom see therapists, inspired Henson to get involved in the cause of dismantling that stigma. "I have a lot of white friends and that’s what got me going," she said. "They say, ‘You don’t talk to anybody? Girl, I’m going to see my shrink every Thursday at 3 o’clock.’ So I was like why don’t we do that in our community?”
Henson is correct that there is a serious stigma surrounding mental health care in the black community.
The roots of this stigma are multifaceted, complex, and worthy of attention. One huge issue is a historical disconnect between black communities and health care institutions. There is a lingering sense of distrust due to a record of racism, exploitation, and abuse by the medical establishment, Monica A. Coleman, Ph.D., a professor of constructive theology and African-American religions at the Claremont School of Theology, previously told SELF.
That chasm continues today with a lack of access to appropriate and affordable care. "There are clearly big disparities in many black communities where there are fewer mental health services available," Richard S. Schottenfeld, M.D., chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Howard University College of Medicine, previously told SELF. "Compared to white Americans, black Americans not only have less access to mental health care—they’re substantially less likely to receive treatment." In 2014, 18.8 percent of non-Hispanic white adults got mental health treatment or counseling, compared to just 9.4 percent of black adults, according to the Office of Minority Health.
Not only are fewer black people seeking help than white people—they're less able to find therapists that look like them, as Henson herself discovered. Just 4 percent of psychologists are black, according to the American Psychological Association. While it goes without saying that a black patient does not have to see a black therapist, seeing someone who can relate to your life experiences as a person of color may make it easier to open up to them and to get the most out of counseling.
On top of these structural issues, there is the sense of personal shame associated with being vulnerable about mental health issues that Henson refers to. "In the black community, there is often a sense that unlike other illnesses, this is a personal failing, a moral failing," Dr. Schottenfeld said. "There’s a reluctance to show that you’re hurting." Through this lens, needing help seems more like a personal shortcoming than a health condition.
Henson's organization aims to help combat some of these issues.
According to its website, the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation is committed to "changing the perception of mental illness in the African-American community by encouraging those who suffer with this debilitating illness to get the help they need." The organization aims to "ensure cultural competency" in mental health care in several ways, including by offering scholarships to African American students pursuing a career in the field and by offering services to children in urban schools.
Henson is also hoping that her willingness to speak out will help cut through some of the stigma by dispelling the notion that celebrities don't deal with things like depression or anxiety too. “I’m here to tell you that when they tell cut and the cameras go away, I go home to real problems just like everybody else,” the actress said during her speech, Variety reported. Her hope is that sharing her story will allow people to say, "Oh wow she’s going through it? Well I’m alright then."