When Taraji P. Henson was a substitute teacher, she witnessed far too many young Black boys and girls placed — unjustly — in the "special" class. While there were certainly one or two children that did indeed suffer from mental afflictions, the vast majority were there simply because there were troubles that weren't necessarily being addressed at home — or by the school.
"It was then that I realized that we need better therapists in schools," she said emphatically. "We need people who are capable of identifying when a child is suffering from trauma — whatever the source of that trauma is — and know what to do when faced with that child and his or her trauma. We need people who know how to deploy proper tools to help. We need safe spaces in schools. Our children need so many things if we're going to help them break the cycle of inter-generational trauma and abuse."
Henson's frontline experiences, both in the school system and in her own personal life, inspired her to co-found the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation with her best friend, Tracie Jenkins. Named after Henson's late father, a Vietnam veteran who died in 2005, the Foundation aims to provide mental health services specifically for Black men, women, and children facing unique challenges when it comes to their mental health.
"There's a lack of culturally competent therapists — and, yes, even psychiatrists — in the field of mental health," she said. "It's not enough to just be aware of the logistics of mental health — you also have to be aware of the cultural history of the person you're talking to. You know, in the Black community, there's such a stigma around mental health — and it's our job to eradicate that stigma by breaking the cycle. The only way we can do that is by providing therapists that get it, you know?"
The stigma surrounding mental health in the Black community is a complex one, to be sure — and at its core, there's no such thing as a "pan-African" or a "pan-Black" mental health experience. A Black person with African roots whose parents came from Nigeria or Ghana, for example, and was raised in a household with those values has a quite different take on talking about their mental health than, for example, a Black American who can trace his or her roots to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. In addition, some Black families are more influenced by the church than others, and some Black families must deal with the trauma of addiction, abuse, and incarceration.
Henson, too, says that there's another factor that most don't consider when talking about mental health in the Black community: schools, especially public schools, whose teachers carry biases they may, or may not, be consciously aware of.
"A lot of the biases that many students face happen in school — and this is unbeknownst to the students," she said. "These children go to school, sometimes, and they are faced with trauma and biases far beyond what we can imagine — and then they carry that with them for the rest of their lives. And that's really where we've gotta start — we've got to get these kids out of that mentality of the school-to-prison pipeline, and the only way we're going to do that is by being able to provide these kids with therapists that look like them and understand them."
With these complexities in mind, it's no wonder that the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation offers a wide variety of resources — and provides a resource guide for those who need it. They also provide:
- COVID-based therapy.
- Free youth and young adult virtual groups.
- A scholarship fund for aspiring Black mental health professionals.
Henson, though, understands the enormity of her undertaking — and, hopefully, knows the enormity of which she will be blessed for her efforts. But she also realizes that the effort, itself, is awe-inspiring. "It's layered when it comes to Black people and how they deal with mental health, right? It's always something," she said.
To donate to the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation and support their efforts, click here.