An Actress Looks to Break the Silence on Black Mental Health With a New Foundation

You may know Taraji P. Henson from her award-winning performances in Empire, Hidden Figures, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. What may be news is that Henson is deeply concerned about the perception of mental illness in black communities, as well as the lack of culturally competent, high-quality care available to this population. In 2018, she started a foundation to address these issues named after her late father: the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation (BLHF).

“Silence for Black people must end. We want to provide a safe environment for African-Americans to discuss their concerns in a space where they will not be persecuted or misunderstood,” the foundation states.

Mental Health: an Underfunded Cause and an Area of Need in Black Communities

In the U.S., about one in five people have a mental health condition—that’s just those who have been formerly counted. The numbers suggest we all know someone with a mental illness and/or have one ourselves. But shame and lack of accurate information keep many people from recognizing symptoms and getting help, and have also generally deterred philanthropic support. Funders may turn more easily to health causes that seem less enigmatic and more familiar, such as brick-and-mortar projects or the quest for a cancer breakthrough. But along with the smaller grantmakers who fund in this space, like family foundations, we have seen some bigger philanthropies show up in the last few years. These include public health foundations looking upstream at the social, economic and environmental factors that influence health.

Mental Health America points out that adversities including slavery and “race-based exclusion from health, educational, social and economic resources,” have led to socioeconomic disparities for black people in America. Black people are more likely to be poor, homeless, uninsured, victims of violence, and incarcerated—all of which can cause mental illness and exacerbate barriers to care. The National Institute of Mental Health found minority populations are more likely to lack medical care, including for mental illness, and are more likely to receive poor-quality mental care.

What Does the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation Want to Achieve?

BLHF aims to “support organizations who educate, celebrate and make visible the positive impact of mental health wellness.” Its specific emphasis on black mental health is somewhat unique in the philanthrosphere, and it could therefore lay down a new grantmaking path for other funders to follow.

Henson’s late father, Boris Lawrence Henson, was a Vietnam War vet who suffered from mental illness, including PTSD and alcoholism. Though violent at times, Henson has said he also inspired her with his love, truthfulness and strength.

“My dad fought in the Vietnam War for our country, returned broken, and received little to no physical and emotional support. I stand in his absence, committed to offering support to African-Americans who face trauma daily, simply because they’re Black,” Henson said. The foundation plans to approach this goal with a three-pronged approach: by supporting mental health services for urban youth, backing re-entry programs for people leaving prison, and boosting cultural competency and black representation in the mental healthcare field.

The foundation points out black children, who are more likely to experience trauma, have increasing rates of suicide, ADHD and behavioral disorders. It aims to increase urban youth access to mental healthcare in schools that demonstrate the highest need, “based on research and data collected from working groups consisting of principals, counselors, teachers, social workers, parents and therapists.” In this work, they will be joining a league of physical and mental health funders who are also trying to reach traumatized children before they grow up into adults with myriad difficulties.

Prison recidivism is another focus for the foundation, with an emphasis on the role of mental healthcare in successful re-entry. In describing this issue, BLHF points out that in 2005, more than half of the people in state prison with mental health issues were black, and that almost 70 percent of people released from prison return within three years. BLHF states that it will work to reduce recidivism by funding organizations with re-entry programs that provide mental health support to formerly incarcerated individuals. The foundation’s vision is for consistent treatment that lasts at least three years. Philanthropies like Cal Wellness and the Public Welfare Foundation, among others, are already backing programs for the recently incarcerated. 

And BLHF will provide scholarships to black high school and college students seeking careers in the mental healthcare field.

“People trust who they know and what they know. Having an African-American or culturally competent therapist gives way to the idea of opening up,” the foundation states. In 2008, only 5.8 percent of psychology Ph.D.s awarded in the U.S. were earned by black Americans. During the 2014 to 2015 school year, 9 percent of psychology grad students were black. While we see other funders backing equity in higher education, this specific focus is novel.

Of course, calls for more representation and inclusion for people of color are familiar and important within the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors, too. And unsurprisingly, Henson also believes in boosting diversity in the film industry. “Come on, it’s what the world looks like. That’s what people want to see, representation,” she said.

An Enduring Challenge in Black Communities

“My white friends have standing appointments with their therapists. I was like, ‘Why aren’t we doing that?’ In our culture, it’s taboo,” Henson recently said. Many studies have documented this cultural phenomenon. One found that, often due to stigma, members of ethnic minority groups were more likely than European Americans to “avoid treatment until the disorder is nearly incapacitating.” Another found among blacks who were already mental health consumers that more than a third thought mild anxiety or depression would be seen as “crazy” within their social circles.

“[If] you are Black in this country, there is a long and difficult history of penalization and demonization for expressing how you feel… One learns that silence, even in the face of insufferable pain and terror, is the only way to protect oneself,” BLHF states, echoing the point that historical collective trauma can impede contemporary personal healing.

Another study exploring black people’s attitudes toward mental health stated that “psychoeducation or community awareness programs” to reduce stigma and “exploration of partnerships between faith-based organizations and mental health services” could be helpful for some black Americans. Health, social justice or spiritually based funders, as well as those particularly interested in working with black communities, could potentially back these types of programs.

The Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation hopes to do its part to improve the attitudes toward and quality of mental healthcare in black communities. It’s based in Beverly Hills, California, and it officially launched in September 2018 at a fundraiser called Taraji’s Boutique of Hope. Its executive director is Henson’s close friend, Tracie Jade Jenkins. According to Jenkins’ Instagram account, in January 2019, the foundation is in the midst of a nationwide listening tour, with a planned stop in New York City. She posted, “If you’re a culturally competent therapist or thought leader in the mental health field, leave a comment below, we want to hear from you.”

While further specifics about the timeline, source and size of BLHF’s first grants are not disclosed—we were not able to connect with them for comment—donations are now being accepted online to support mental health services in urban schools, which is described as one of its “first initiatives.” Henson says that well-known black men have been some of the first supporters of the foundation. This backing from male celebrities is notable—according to Mental Health America, black men are particularly concerned about others’ perceptions of mental illness and treatment. She said, “Snoop Dogg, Xzibit, Tracy Morgan and Chance the Rapper all stepped up.”