Actress Taraji P. Henson has teamed up with her longtime friend Tracie Jade Jenkins to help Black communities access barrier-free mental health and wellness via the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation.
Taraji P. Henson got used to the notion of talking openly about mental health at an early age. Her father, Boris Lawrence Henson, was upfront and honest about his struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder in the wake of the Vietnam War.
“It takes a lot of courage to live your truth and be unapologetically you, and he taught me that at a very young age,” said Taraji Henson, the star of “Empire,” “Hidden Figures,” and “What Men Want.” “I think — in fact, I know — that’s made me the actress I am today, and I think it’s why people are kind of drawn to me the way they were my dad.”
While Boris Henson, who died of cancer in 2006, was transparent about his mental health, he struggled to access the resources and help he required. His daughter is not ignorant to the fact those struggles still exist today.
“I’m privileged, I can afford $350 an hour for a therapist, but there’s a whole community that can’t, and they aren’t even really comfortable with talking about it,” she said. “That’s why the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation was formed, because we saw the need.”
Community of caring
Henson created the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation (BLHF) five years ago, with the goals of bringing conversations about mental health even further into the mainstream, and giving underserved populations barrier-free access to mental health resources.
When seeking someone to head up the foundation, Henson didn’t hesitate to bring on board Tracie Jade Jenkins, one of her best friends from the time the two were in their early teens. Jenkins has long been a leader in the national discussion on mental health and in fundraising for non-profits.
“It didn’t really feel like choosing anything,” Jenkins said. “It’s almost like this was a purpose-driven assignment.”
With the BLHF, Jenkins sees an opportunity to confront “triple or even quadruple pandemics in the Black community,” she said. “We’re looking at disparities in pay, disparities in healthcare, social injustices, all of these things that impact our mental health every single day. And at some point, that crisis is going to build and collapse on itself.”
Spaces for change
In addition to these longstanding issues affecting the Black community, the COVID-19 pandemic created a new detriment to mental health.
“The Surgeon General just came out with a warning that isolation is killing us as quickly as smoking cigarettes,” said Jenkins, citing a recent report that widespread loneliness poses similar health risks as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. “That’s an epidemic.”
One of the ways the BLHF is confronting the loneliness epidemic is through a partnership with the Kate Spade New York Foundation, which has supported the Boris L. Henson Foundation Self-Care Wellness Pods. The pods are physical structures on college campuses where students can access mental health, self-guided practices, workshops, and seminars, as well as hangout and connect with peers and mental health professionals to address challenges, or even just rest and reset from a busy day.
“This is an opportunity for us to reconnect,” Jenkins said, “for us to get away from those rooms, those headphones and silos, and get into a space where we can reconnect and speak to one another through the exchange of physical energy.”
The first wellness pods were rolled out earlier this year on the campus of Alabama State University, a historically black university in Montgomery, Alabama.
“When I was still trying to go to school and get a higher education, I oftentimes would see kids struggling mentally, and because we never really talked about mental health on a larger scale, I just didn’t know where to send them to get help,” said Henson, who attended Howard University and North Carolina Agricultural and Technical University, both HBCUs. “Now that I’m in a position to do something about it, this is one of the things that I am most proud of.”
Access for all
Even if there isn’t a physical BLHF space in your area yet, the foundation still offers programming and resources to promote better mental health for all.
“One of our immediate goals over the next five years is to provide 1 million hours of free mental health services to the Black community. We offer free therapy campaigns year-round, and people can take part from the comfort of their own homes,” Jenkins said. “We also offer resources like The Unspoken Curriculum that helps teachers and administrators talk about racism and bias in schools.
“Ultimately, our goal is to eradicate the stigma around mental health in the Black community.”
That’s a tall task, but Henson and Jenkins are willing to do whatever they can to break down the barriers to better mental healthcare, and give people in all communities the tools and resources they need to have these difficult and important conversations.
“This is not something we can ignore,” Jenkins said. “Mental health is not that thing in the back of the closet anymore. It should be a priority in every home, in every business, and every conversation.”
“And we need to give each other grace,” Henson added. “Everybody’s fighting a battle.”