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Taraji P. Henson shines a light on mental health crisis among African American teens

"I just feel that is what God sent me here to do."
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/ Source: TODAY

When Taraji P. Henson’s father, Boris Henson, talked about how he “felt off” following his service in Vietnam, others around him often seemed uncomfortable. Even though some mocked him for it, he continued talking about having PTSD and depression.

“They would call him ‘crazy’ you know — ‘You know Boris. He crazy.’ And that’s the stigma around it,” the "Empire" actress told NBC special anchor Maria Shriver. “In the African American community, it’s taboo. For so long, it’s been looked upon as a weakness in our community.”

The need to address the social stigma surrounding mental health in the African American community is critical.

African American children and teens are dying from suicide at an alarming rate, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority health. In 2017, suicide was the second leading cause of death for black American teens, ages 15 to 24. African American females of high school age were 70% more likely to attempt suicide than their non-Hispanic white female counterparts. Since the early 1990s, the rates of suicide have nearly doubled for African American children, according to a 2015 paper in JAMA Pediatrics.

"We’re letting them know that they are worthy, and that they matter in a world that’s telling them they don’t right now."

The Oscar-nominated star has testified to Congress to urge for more funding for mental health in African American communities, but she didn’t stop there. She founded the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation, which partners with schools to help African American children who need mental health support. For example, the foundation is creating “Peace Rooms,” which are painted with encouraging quotes to help students with anxiety who need to step away. While this gives students a quiet place to collect themselves, it also shows them that their well-being is valuable.

“We’re letting them know that they are worthy, and that they matter in a world that’s telling them they don’t right now,” Henson said.

The foundation also awards scholarships to black students who want to study mental health to make up for the dearth of African American therapists. "Culturally competent" African American mental health professionals can help community members as they grapple with their mental health and the unique challenges they face.

“To wake up and to know that at any moment you could be a target just because of the color of your skin, that is a heavy weight to carry,” she said. “For children, that is a heavy weight to carry. For adults. Because the adults are the mothers, the brothers, the uncles, the grandmothers, the sisters. We all carry it.”

Henson experienced firsthand the challenge of trying to find a therapist that could address her needs when she began experiencing depression and anxiety in her 40s. Her frustration increased when she couldn't find a therapist to help her son, Marcell Johnson.

“Trying to find a culturally competent therapist was like looking for a purple unicorn with a gold horn,” she said.

By supporting children in school and training future mental health professionals, Henson hopes that she can change the future for numerous African American children and teens.

For Henson, the foundation's success will be determined not only by increased mental health resources for African American students and access to therapists, but to help young children feel comfortable talking about mental health issues.

Success, she said, will happen "when we can literally talk about mental health in our community without being laughed at, or being called crazy, or being demonized."

“I want to touch as many children as possible. These babies are suffering,” she said. "And I just feel that is what God sent me here to do. I finally figured it out."