Taraji P. Henson wants to remind you that even “strong people” have mental health problems
While you may know Taraji P. Henson as a Golden Globe Award-winning and Oscar-nominated actress, a mom, and a vegan (who makes an exception for Kinder Bueno chocolate), you may not be aware that she wants us to talk about our mental health candidly, ask people how they are, and to really listen when they answer. One thing’s for sure: We are listening intently to Taraji.
Of all these things, most proudly, Henson is a fierce advocate for mental health awareness.
Just over a year ago, Henson launched the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation in honor of her father, who suffered from mental health issues following his tour of duty in the Vietnam War. Through the BLHF, Henson works to eradicate the stigma around mental health in African-American communities by offering mental health services to young people in urban schools and providing scholarships to African-American students pursuing careers in the mental health field.
We sat down with Henson (on a swinging Kinder Bueno wafer, FYI) to discuss how even those who appear to be the toughest cookies struggle with their mental health—just like her Empire character Cookie Lyon does, and like Henson herself does. Read our candid conversation below.
HelloGiggles: So, the last season of Empire is in full swing, and we just learned that Cookie is in therapy. Can you tell me more about her mental health journey and why it’s important to show that?
Taraji P. Henson: It’s certainly important to show [her mental health journey]. We’ve already attacked the issue through André—[Cookie and Lucious’s] oldest son on Empire. But I think for a character who everybody deems so strong, it’s good to see that even strong people need help. Most of the people who deem themselves as strong actually need help the most, because that’s a cloak—a mask of some sort. I think this is good for Cookie. I think she’s learning a lot about herself—about what kept her under Lucious’s control for so long, why she couldn’t leave that situation when she should have, and [she’s] just trying to understand the choices that she’s made in her life.
HG: I wanted to thank you for the work you’re doing to destigmatize mental health issues—it’s so impactful. Why is it important for you to be involved in this field?
TPH: It’s very important to me, especially in the African-American community, because when I found out the statistics about African-American teens—children—who are committing suicide…the suicide rate has doubled in the last two decades. While children of other backgrounds’ [numbers] are declining, [African Americans’] are rising. That bothers me. I can’t sit back and not do anything.
African Americans are suffering and we don't talk about it—we need to.
I thought that if I put a face to it, it could normalize the conversation a bit. Since I’ve come out with this [the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation], I’ve seen a lot of conversations happening, with more celebrities talking about it. You never know what could spark something. Not a lot of conversations were happening, and then I started my foundation, and now I’m seeing a lot more conversations around the subject matter. And that’s good—that’s how you destigmatize it.
HG: Can you tell me more about your mission with the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation and the importance of culturally competent therapists?
TPH: Well, you can’t give me a bunch of exercises if you don’t understand my trauma and where it comes from. “Culturally competent” doesn’t necessarily mean you’re Black—you just understand the African-American struggle. So, that’s important, especially when dealing with one’s mental issues and their traumas. I have to feel comfortable enough with someone to talk to them in my most vulnerable state, and I have to feel like they understand.
I think that's what keeps a lot of Black people away from therapy—the therapists don't look like us. We only represent four percent of therapists in the entire field.
We [the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation] want to put more therapists in schools so we can identify children suffering from trauma. Children don’t want to be bad, they don’t want to act out—there’s always a reason why. We shouldn’t label them as special education, throw them in a class, and say they can’t learn because they’re acting out. Clearly there’s something going on that should be addressed.
HG: In our daily lives, how do you think we can all make small steps toward destigmatizing mental health in our communities?
TPH: We just need to keep talking about it. Sometimes it’s as simple as really listening to people. You know how when you’re at work, you say, “How are you doing?” [and they respond] “I’m fine, how are you?” and you just keep going? Really look at a person in their eyes and ask them, “How are you?” and really listen. I think this world that we’re living in and where we’re going with all of this technology is desensitizing us. Everybody’s like this [looks down] and nobody’s looking up. I think we need to fight to keep that human connection and contact.
It's easy to get sucked into your phone, and it's even easier for people who suffer from depression. Society is making it easier for us to continue down the rabbit hole—to alienate ourselves, to separate ourselves. We have to fight against that and continue to create places where humans can come in contact with each other.
HG: You’ve spoken about your own personal struggle with anxiety and depression in the past. What are some of the ways you’ve learned to cope?
TPH: For those days when it’s really hard, I have those friends that I know will come over and make me get out of the house. I work out, but there are days when I can’t even motivate myself to work out—that’s when I call my friends that I know will say, “Come on, get up!” I also meditate. I’m into aromatherapy and Tibetan singing bowls, because the tones calm my racing thoughts. There’s so many therapies you can do. Meditation is just amazing and has helped me a lot. My therapist is always like, “Did you meditate this week?”
Having a therapist can be a journey of its own, because you're looking for someone [who] you feel comfortable with.
It took me a while to find her—it took a couple referrals. Thanks to my good friend, Gabourey Sidibe, I found an amazing therapist.
HG: Did you find meditation challenging when you were first learning?
TPH: At first, I thought there was a certain kind of way that you had to meditate. Once I understood that meditation is about quieting the mind, I stopped trying to sit there and go, “Om” and do all those [cliché] things. I made it about me and my process. I started turning all sound off—no music, no television—when I’m home. Even if I’m not sitting still and am moving around the house, I’m allowing my thoughts to clear. I can work around the house and still think about other things. My mind races—I just let it run, run, run, and then there’s some times when I absolutely have to be still. But any time that you’re quiet, it’s a meditative state.
HG: I hadn’t thought about it that way.
TPH: Yeah, you can meditate on the bus!
HG: I should do it when I’m riding the subway! So you’ve teamed up with Kinder Bueno for their expansion to the U.S. Why did you decide to partner with this brand?
TPH: Well, first, because it’s really good chocolate. I started eating [a] vegan [diet], and I did it [without exceptions] for about a year. I found that certain things were hard to give up—chocolate was one, and [also] seafood. I didn’t want to feel like I was depriving myself of living, so I just changed the diet a bit. [Now,] I’m [on a] 90% plant-based [diet], and when I do have my cheat days, I’ll allow myself to have seafood or chocolate.
TPH: This [Kinder Bueno] is really good chocolate—it doesn’t leave an aftertaste. I love sweets—even when I’m eating [completely] plant-based, I’ll find plant-based desserts. So this is perfect for a cheat day because I don’t feel heavy. I lived off of these when I was in China for three months, so it’s also kind of nostalgic for me. To know that it’s coming to the U.S. is great—we could use some good chocolate here.
Henson is right—we could use some good chocolate in this country, but more importantly, we could use more people like her—people who are fighting to destigmatize mental health and to keep good old-fashioned human connection alive.