What Taraji P. Henson has been able to do with her first Boris L. Henson Foundation benefit and conference last weekend was nothing short of a revelation—and right on time.
The Empire star and Oscar-nominated actress is a native Washingtonian and Howard University graduate. So, it was only fitting that her inaugural foundational event, named for her father, who navigated addiction and mental health issues, be in the city where he lived and worked.
Aptly named, “Can We Talk?” the three-day conference and benefit raised more than money. On Friday, Henson echoed a word many repeated throughout the weekend, as it highlighted mental health and the black community’s “crisis”—especially as it relates to our children.
“Dealing with traumas at home is one of the reasons the suicide rate is rising among our children. I can’t fathom a 5-year-old contemplating life or death. Five? Your shoulders are too small to hold the weight of the world. That bothers me. I get choked up every time I’m at a public forum and I have to say those words,” she said.
“Five years old. Killing themselves. What kind of world do we live in? We have to do something. We have to get involved,” Henson continued. “I blame the adults. These kids have too much technology and not enough guidance. Most parents don’t how to operate social media, but the kids are on social media and they’re being tremendously affected by it. They’re following fake lives, or they’re looking at filtered pictures and filtered lives and they have no guidance. They’re going off to college and they’re having psychotic breaks. It is truly a crisis.”
It is a crisis that the 48-year-old actress is tackling head-on. The weekend of events was kicked off on Capitol Hill, as Henson delivered a searing testimony on black youth suicide before the newly formed Congressional Black Caucus’ Task Force on Black Youth Suicide and Mental Health.
Led by Democratic New Jersey Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman, the task force launched on April 30 and is dedicated to compiling information, testimonies, and research that will ultimately be used to inform legislative actions addressing the issue of black youth suicide and create better access to mental health.
“The task force had its second hearing today and Taraji came and testified; she was very candid,” said Rep. Bonnie Watson to The Root. “We had an opportunity to explore some of the things that she’s been doing, some of her experiences and we’re trying to collect those things.”
Watson went on to say that the task force’s working group was present and that they will continue to compile best practices, resources and their findings to present a report at the beginning of 2020.
“So, for Taraji to come through and to use her celebrity to amplify this issue I think it going to be huge in terms of building the will to do what needs to be done,” said Rep. Watson. “This is a very serious issue. We’re in a crisis.”
Perhaps what was most amazing is the sheer level of heavy hitters in the house last weekend: Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby appeared on a panel on Criminal Justice and Mental Health; Dr. Altha Stewart, the newly instated black head of the American Psychiatric Association (and the first African American to hold the position in the organization’s 174-year history) was present, as was radio and TV personality Charlamagne Tha God and scores of others who are working in black communities all over the nation to ensure that our mental well-being is being as touted as our physical health.
The very first panel I attended was mind-blowing. “PTSS: Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome,” was conducted by the very capable and frankly, hilarious Dr. Joy DeGruy, author of the seminal work, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury & Healing.
The two-part seminar did a deep dive into the history of black oppression and outlined the very real, historical and visceral damage slavery and the construction of whiteness has done to the bodies and psyches of black people in this country.
In essence, we are now trying to “relieve the dissonance” of this damage; Dr. DeGruy artfully balanced history, science, and contemporary media to make a very compelling case.
There is too much to unpack from the second part of this amazing panel, but two things stood out more than any other: One, the story of Ota Benga, a black man who was put in the Bronx Zoo Monkey House as a spectacle in the 20th century (1906). He later shot himself in the heart, a perhaps extreme but clear case of how white supremacy destroys black minds and bodies.
The second was the notion of “serial forced displacement,” which has been something happening to black people since we were brought here from Africa 400 years ago. From the Middle Passage to segregation, to redlining, to urban renewal, to “urban blight,” to gentrification today, this displacement—undergirded by federal, state and local policies—set up “a dynamic process that includes an increase in personal and structural violence…and a cycle of fragmentation,” said Dr. DeGruy, drawing from research published in 2011.
“What happens when you consistently displace people?” she asked. More pointedly, what happens to one’s mental health when shelter, the most basic human need for safety, is consistently ripped away from a people?
There was so much more; please get this woman’s book, in the least. It will change you.
Unfortunately, as with most good conferences, you had to choose between panels that were all intriguing and amazing, like “It’s Not Love: It’s Co-Dependence”; “Mental Health and the LGBTQ Community”; “Toxic Stress and Our DNA”; and the one I went with, “Mental Health and the Criminal Justice System,” which is something I am passionate about.
Imagine my surprise when I saw Marilyn Mosby, state’s attorney for Baltimore City, on a panel with Dr. Tekesia Jackson-Rudd, a clinical psychologist, who works justice-impacted youth in Los Angeles; the Hon. Judge Alexander Williams Jr., founder and executive director of the Judge Alexander Williams Jr. Center for Education, Justice and Ethics at the University of Maryland; and Baltimore native Stokey Cannady, who did 12 years in prison and now runs a youth organization called the Stokey Project.
The robust discussion from all angles of the criminal justice system was again, incredibly illuminating, and as with a great panel, it had people directly impacted share their voice, too.
“I did 12 years in prison, and in that time, I never saw a man cry. And that’s not normal,” said Cannady. He went on to touch on how mental health is very much affecting the behavior of our youth.
“These kids are so helpless and desensitized that they run from us instead of running to us. And we’ve got to change that,” he said.
Mosby also touched on justice-impacted youth. “We want to criminalize young people but we don’t want to look at the reason they act out,” said Mosby.
And Judge Williams, who has spent his career working at the intersection of criminal justice and mental health, said he is “not satisfied with the current presidential candidates because they’re not addressing mental health.”
Mosby concurs that if we continue to act like mental health is not an issue, politicians (of which she is technically one) will not do so, either.
“We have got to destigmatize mental health. We want to sit up there and act like this is someone else’s issue. And that makes a stigma. And that’s NOT going to be a priority of politicians if we can’t admit this happens in our families,” said Mosby.
The third panel I was graced to attend was “And How Are The Children?: Addressing the Mental Health Needs of Students in Urban School Districts.” The amazing panel consisted of Dr. Dana Cunningham, director of Prince George’s Schools Mental Health Initiative at the National Center for School Mental Health (NCSMH); José Ochoa, executive and artistic director of the Chicago High School of Arts (ChiArts), which has a large population of LGBTQ students; Dr. Bruce Purnell, executive director of The Love More Movement; and Benjamin Williams Ph.D., principal of Ron Brown College Preparatory School, an all-boys high school in Washington, D.C.
Of course, the role of trauma played a big part in the discussion. The panel discussed ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) and cited a 20-year-old study that noted the more ACEs one experiences, the greater impact on mental and physical health.
Ochoa said we’re asking children who are acting out the wrong questions. “Instead of saying, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ We should be asking, ‘What happened to you?’” he said.
Ochoa also noted that we’ve got to be creative in dealing with this issue of mental health and our kids, perhaps where school districts can set up anonymous counselor/support with text or calls to relieve some of the stigmas and meet children where they are.
The panel really drove home the point that ACEs—basically, traumas—drive much of the behavior of our children, which is subsequently often criminalized.
Dr. Williams noted that his school is working with students in the Howard University psychology department to learn how to work with parents. And Dr. Purnell made clear that we need to start talking to our children about mental health and expand their emotional vocabulary.
“There are more than three emotions: happy, sad, mad,” he said.
On Sunday, the session closed out with spirit, of course. “African Spirit, American Religion: A Culturally Competent Approach to Mental Health in the Black Church” was a panel led by Dr. Anita Graham Phillips, a third-generation pastor married to a fifth-generation pastor, who also holds a doctorate in psychology.
Phillips lectured (preached?) about the connection between Christian scripture and anxiety, citing a particularly insightful passage regarding Jesus and his emotional distress before his crucifixion. She also noted that the apostle Paul would most likely today be diagnosed with general anxiety disorder.
Phillips, founder of the Turn on the Light Movement, then moderated a panel with Dr. Carla Debnam, LCPC, a pastor’s wife and executive director of The Renaissance Center, which is a Christian Counseling Center in Baltimore; Sharon Lawrence, LCSW-C, owner and therapist at Selah Wellness & Therapeutic Services, which does EMDR; Celeste Washington, a mental health advocate and a survivor of childhood sexual abuse; and Gertrude Wilson, NAMI National Trainer and the mother of a son who suffers from schizophrenia.
After the conference’s closing on Sunday, Henson spoke with The Root about the way in which church has historically been at odds with mental health treatment.
“I just think the stigma has been passed down for generations, since slavery. And for us, we’re not supposed to look weak. We’ve been so fulfilled with spirit for generations that we’ve been told to pray our problems away and yes, we’re very spiritual and religious people, but God is only going to help you help yourself,” Henson said. “So yes, you can pray, but you also need to see somebody that God has anointed with the power to help you. Someone to talk to because that’s very important. As humans we need each other, that’s why God put us all here.”
In all, the conference was absolutely flooring. It was so on time to have all these professionals and laypeople in the same room to talk about what everyone agrees is indeed a crisis in our community. Each year promises to be bigger and better; a site for connections to make substantive change in the mental health of our communities.
After all was said and done, Taraji Henson, the locomotive of this freedom train, was (in her words) typically emotional, but quite pleased with the amazing work that took place.
“I felt the conference was a huge success,” shared Henson. “It was so good for people to tell their stories and to share their pain, because when you do that, you help others and you help yourself, so it’s important to talk and to talk as a collective so you know that you’re not alone. It’s just so beautiful.”