The Golden Globe Award-winning actress steps into her most important role: a champion for mental health.
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Actress Taraji P. Henson may be best known as the Oscar-nominated star of “Empire,” but lately she’s been making her mark as an outspoken advocate for mental health. Henson started the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation — named for her late father, who struggled with his mental health after returning from the Vietnam War — in order to help eradicate the stigma that keeps many in the African-American community from seeking help with their emotional well-being. The star even took her mission to Congress this past June, fighting for more resources and funding for those in the black community who face mental struggles. Because, as she put it, “when it comes to African-American people, we don’t deal with it. We pray about it, we shun it, we just don’t talk about it. How are we going to help ourselves if we don’t allow ourselves to be vulnerable?”
Henson has experienced the power of vulnerability herself: “When I put it on the record and said, ‘Hey, I suffer too,’ I started seeing more people being comfortable talking about it,” she says. And the truth is, everyone deals with something — whether that’s everyday stress or something more serious.
But before we can fully cope with our stress, we need to develop awareness of what our stressors are in the first place — and actionable steps that support our mental well-being. A new Thrive Global survey of over 2,000 Americans ages 18 to 85 shows just how desperately people want and need that knowledge: 91% of respondents said not knowing or ignoring their personal signs of overstress had a negative impact on their mental well-being, 72% wish they knew more small everyday steps to improve their mental health, and nearly half said when it comes to managing their stress, they don’t know where to start.
Because there is power in sharing our stories, Henson is opening up to Thrive about her mental health journey, her personal stress points, and the everyday steps she takes to take care of her emotional well-being.
Thrive Global: What was it like growing up while your dad was struggling? Did it make you more aware of your own feelings?
Taraji P. Henson: When I was really young, my father was homeless for a time. He was a contractor, and when the Reagan administration came into power, he wasn’t getting contracts like he was before. So that’s what forced him into homelessness — but he came out of it, got jobs. At that time, there was no name to mental health issues, and he didn’t really get diagnosed until later on in his life, when I was much older.
As a kid, you just don’t know what’s going on. He self-medicated for a long time by drinking. That caused a lot of issues, but I knew through it all, he loved me very much. My dad was always open with me. After he was getting help, he would tell my son, Marcel, “Don’t go through life being angry. Don’t be an angry black man like I was.” I’m seeking therapy now because I’m sure it did something to me — having to cope that young. There’s a better solution than just being angry: being able to talk about this anger.
TG: Why is it so important to talk about what you’re struggling with?
TPH: When you don’t talk about mental health, how is anyone going to be OK with saying, you know, “I need to talk to somebody about this, deal with my anger.” Then that’s where the stress comes in, because we have this stigma that we’ve got to be strong and talking to someone means “I’m weak.” Then you just run around in life being angry, or getting in trouble.
My passion and my mission is to normalize the conversation when it comes to the African-American community because we are left behind. We don’t have the resources, we’re not even talking about it. No one’s fighting for our rights because we don’t even talk about it in our own communities. That’s why I came forward and said, “Look, I’m not just starting the foundation because I need a charity. This is real to me. I’ve had issues, my son has had issues, we had have had trauma and pain in our life and you have to deal with it.” And being open about your story, it doesn’t make anything wrong with you.
TG: What causes you stress? Do you have certain signs that let you know your anxiety is bubbling?
TPH: My anxiety usually hits me at night. I call it the witching hour, or the bitching hour. I’m a Virgo so I’m very analytical. I’m thinking about every encounter. I know when I’m in a low place when those thoughts become dark thoughts — like, “I don’t like myself.” What I’m learning is that meditation works by just allowing myself to not fight those thoughts. If you fight them or ignore them, they’re going to keep coming until you deal with them. During the meditation, I just allow those thoughts to come in, and then breathe them out. My therapist has also suggested that I always write down what’s troubling me. The mind is powerful — you’ve got to control that thing.
I get up in the morning and I meditate when I’m feeling really low on energy. You have to do whatever it takes to get your mind right in the morning. Prayer, meditation, walking, whatever it is. That’s what I do in the morning to help me get through the day.
TG: You’re a big believer in therapy — how has it helped you?
TPH: You have moments of strength and you have moments of vulnerability — that’s human.
Expressing your inner thoughts with a professional is helpful so they can let you know when you’re talking out of your mind. I used to think, “I’m a horrible mother.” You ask any mother, we always feel like we could’ve done this better or that better — that’s just how mothers are. I was stuck in this thinking and my therapist would say, “Woman, we need to pull you up.” She said, “With all the things that you have accomplished in your life, I refuse to believe you dropped the ball at being a mother. Everything that you told me just doesn’t fit into the equation. So are we stuck? Are we in a moment?” If you don’t have anybody in your life to readjust those thoughts, what happens? They’re going to get darker, and darker, and darker.
TG: Has opening up changed you?
TPH: I feel lighter because there’s no dark secret anymore. The more I opened up, the more I saw that I’m not the only one. Most humans suffer from this anxiety. Look at the state of the world. There’s no way you’re walking around A-OK. I don’t care who you are, what color you are. I mean, who is walking around not dealing with anything? Just by me saying it and being free, I feel lighter — like I’ve unpacked a huge sack.
TG: Are there steps that you’ve taken to keep the dialogue open with your son in his dark moments — and even to help him before things get hard?
TPH: Yes! I used to have weekly sessions set up for him to see a therapist. His father was murdered when he was 9, and then my father died two years later. My dad was his superhero — they were so close. He’s got fears, he’s seen the news, he sees how boys like him don’t matter. He’s at the age now where he thinks, “I can’t talk to my mom, because now I’m going to look like a punk. I got to be strong now.” So we did family therapy. I introduced it to him that way so he could be OK and feel alright to talk to a professional. There was no taboo in my house when it came to mental health. I didn’t raise him like that.
We are very open and talk about our feelings. I ask, “How was the mental today? You seem dark, babe. What’s going on? What happened? How did you feel after that? What did you do to calm down?” Conversations like that, because I don’t want my baby suffering in the dark.
TG: What are some ways that we as a community can help younger generations who are struggling?
TPH: Through my foundation, we are combating this in the school system. We are infiltrating the schools. We have to teach the teachers, the social workers, the therapists. We need therapists in schools who are culturally competent — who can spot a child and see that they’re working through trauma or something is going on at home. They’re kids. Kids in general want to be good. They want to please you. So when the kid acts out, instead of getting frustrated and calling this child a problem, we need therapists for these children to be able to talk about their fears or the things that they can’t express with their parents.
In addition, we’ve started positive affirmations in bathrooms and peace circles in schools where kids can go and feel safe to work out their issues. Children have been found cuttings themselves in bathrooms, they get bullied in bathrooms, they contemplate life and death in bathrooms and they go there and take drugs to numb their pain. The bathroom has become this dark place, so we’ve commissioned an artist to paint positive beautiful affirmations. Now [these kids] get to go in and write a positive affirmation about themselves as well. It’s a constant reminder that you belong, that you are worthy, that you are beautiful — and it’s been very therapeutic.
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