Taraji P. Henson wants Black people to talk more openly about mental health
Taraji P. Henson is here to deliver something that can seem in short supply these days: peace of mind.
That's the name of a new Facebook Watch show the Golden Globe-winning actress and Oscar nominee recently debuted. A longtime mental health advocate, Henson wants to normalize the conversation around mental health issues, particularly among African Americans who are less likely to seek treatment, and more likely to encounter racial disparities when they do.
It's a mission that's personal to the Southeast D.C. native: Her late father, a Vietnam veteran, struggled with mental health issues. In 2018, she launched a nonprofit bearing his name; the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation connects African Americans to mental health resources, including free virtual therapy. The organization also awards scholarships to African American students interested in entering mental health fields.
"They're not enough of us," Henson says. "And the reason why is because it's taboo in the household. We don't talk about it, so our children don't know to explore this field."
Henson co-hosts "Peace of Mind" alongside her longtime best friend, Tracie Jade, who serves as executive director of the foundation. The first episode features actress and sexual assault survivor Gabrielle Union, who discusses the post-traumatic stress disorder she developed after she was raped at gunpoint at 19. In a companion episode, Henson and Jade discuss PTSD with a licensed therapist.
Other episodes feature Tamar Braxton, who has spoken publicly about her recent hospitalization following a suicide attempt, and Mary J. Blige, whose episode deals with a timely subject: isolation and despair around the holidays. The conversations are raw and honest — as one would expect from the woman who gave us "Empire's" Cookie Lyon. At one point in the first episode, Henson looks directly in the camera and declares "We gon' heal, dammit."
Q: Between the global pandemic and protests against systemic racism, this past year in particular has raised concerns about mental health. Was the show already in the works or is it a response to challenges people are having right now?
A: It actually was in the works longer. We launched the foundation (two years ago), and then we felt like we weren't reaching enough people. And it was like, "Okay, so how do we use my celebrity and get it more to the masses?" We thought why not a talk show where we continue to further the conversation — to try and normalize the conversation. That's what we pitched to Facebook. And they saw the value.
Q: Did the pandemic change your approach to the show?
A: No, it didn't. We included an episode about isolation because everyone — the holidays, you can't go home and see your family. But we didn't make it about the pandemic. Mental health has always been an issue.
It's about normalizing the conversation so that Black people will go seek help and be okay with it.
Q: What about your own mental health journey? You have talked about struggling to find a "culturally competent" therapist.
A: As Black people, we're conditioned to push through and be strong and pray our problems away. And after a while, that ... wasn't working. So I found it harder for me to get out of the dark places because I had been pushing so much, and I'm pushing through my trauma instead of unpacking it and healing it. Enough was enough.
My son was having his struggles with becoming a young Black man in America. So we both needed help. It was impossible to find someone that looked like us or that was culturally competent.
The thing about therapy is that you have to feel like you're in a safe enough place to be vulnerable. And how am I to feel vulnerable sitting across from someone that clearly does not understand what it's like to walk in my shoes as a Black woman, or a Black young man? How can you help me? How can I unpack this? If you culturally can't understand or have no empathy, you know, how can you give me tools to something that you don't understand?
Q: You met your co-host, Tracie Jade, in middle school. Have you two always openly discussed mental health?
A: Even when we didn't understand it as teenagers — I would make fun of her and things like that because we didn't know that that was taboo — we talked about it. I knew she had issues with anxiety her entire life since I've known her.
We always talked about it. My dad talked about it. We just didn't know how to address it because it was frowned upon. As we got older and more educated, we wanted to change that. We're all traumatized or go through trauma in some form or fashion. And it's our job as we become adults to heal it. And that's everyone.
We're just trying to get out the message that strength is not where the strength is. Vulnerability is where your strength lies.
Q: Do you talk about generational trauma at all in the show?
A: Oh, yeah, we do. We talk about all kinds of trauma. There are so many layers and levels to it, and we're learning that's the beauty of being two hosts that actually have issues. It's not like I'm some celebrity that slapped my name on a talk show and I'm just asking questions. We are in it with the audience.
Q: You've talked about seeing your mother get mugged in front of your apartment building when you were a young girl. Has that played into your mental health journey?
A: I'm sure I was traumatized by it, but trauma takes on different effects for different people. And for me, it put fight in me ... My mother didn't crumble and hide in the closet and refuse to go out. The next day, she put the makeup on her black eye. She put her hair up and covered up the spot where he pulled her hair out, and she went to work. That's what I saw her do. That made me go, "Yeah, I've got to be strong." It put fight in me, and probably a little bit of rage.
Q: Are there any episodes or guests that stuck with you or that you think will resonate with your audience?
A: Every episode is unique and important. The thing that stands out to me is I can't forget the faces of the people that have been on the show. They've been vulnerable and shared their experiences. I'm an empath. And it sticks with me.
We check on them and make sure that they're good after the show. ... We try to help them find culturally competent therapists. It's an ongoing conversation we continue to have with them.
"Peace of Mind" (one hour) airs Mondays and Wednesdays at noon on Facebook Watch.
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