On Friday, June 7th, Taraji P Henson, actor and mental health advocate, testified in front of Congress to address mental health and the rising suicide rates of adolescents in the African-American community.
Henson spoke on behalf of her Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation, whose mission is to "eradicate the stigma around mental health issues in the African-American community."
Henson confidently leveraged her celebrity platform in front of the Congressional Black Caucus Emergency Taskforce on Black Youth Suicide and Mental Health, stating, "I am using my celebrity and my voice to put a face to this."
During the emotional testimony, Henson disclosed her own struggles with depression and anxiety with the hope that through publicly talking about mental illness as a black woman, she will aid in changing the stigma of mental health in African-American communities.
"In the African-American community, we don't deal with mental health issues," said Henson during her testimony. "We don't even talk about it."
According to a study published by the NCBI in 2014 entitled African American Men and Women's Attitude Toward Mental Illness, Perceptions of Stigma, and Preferred Coping Behaviors, the 272 African-American participants were "not very open to acknowledging psychological problems, are very concerned about stigma associated with mental illness, and are somewhat open to seeking mental health services, but they prefer religious coping."
Henson pleaded for more mental health counselors and mental health education in response to the rising suicide rates. Data suggests that from 2007 to 2015, the U.S. ED estimate visits for suicide attempts/suicidal thoughts in children five to eighteen years old has doubled to 1.12 million per year.
In her testimony, Henson also pushes for more African-American mental health professional as just under 2% of the members of the American Psychological Association identify as African-American. The lack of African-American psychological professionals leads African-American patients to question whether their therapists are culturally competent in areas required to treat specific problems such as the effects of race-based trauma. Henson says in her testimony, that "when it was time to look for someone who I felt I could trust and my son could trust, it felt like looking for a unicorn."
Henson argues that mental illness and mental health should be implemented into school curriculums as education, similar to the implementation of physical education or sex education. Henson believes that "the more we talk about it, the more people will feel they can talk about it."
The testimony concluded with Henson expressing the importance of coming together to create positive change in the form of resources, education, and awareness. "We need each other. This is me reaching across the table, trying to lend a helping hand in the best way I can. We have to save our children."
After her testimony, Henson took to Instagram to share a synopsis of her experience in front of Congress. Her post, which has received over 640,000 likes to date, has over 12,000 comments of appreciation, words of encouragement, and people sharing their personal stories. Henson has even taken time to respond to those who have commented on her post to share their own experiences with losing loved ones to suicide or dealing with mental illness.
By coming forward as a voice for this issue, Henson has created a space for people to use their own voices to tell their stories.
We have seen it before, celebrities using their platforms and influence to bring awareness to issues that are near and dear to their hearts: Angelina Jolie and breast cancer, Miley Cyrus and youth homelessness, Blake Lively and child pornography, and now Taraji P Henson and mental illness.
Thankfully, every time a celebrity comes forward to step outside of their "lane" and use their star-power and reach as fuel for a movement, it works. Hopefully, Taraji P Henson's testimony will do the same, and, if the reaction to her Instagram post is any indication, then we are headed in the right direction.
WRITTEN BYSophie Slutsky