Henson herself has long been open about living with anxiety and depression, and doesn’t hesitate to share her own experiences with her guests. Besides the tissues, the main thing she offers the celebrities, therapists, and other people who appear on her show is compassion.
Peace Of Mind, which is available on Facebook Watch, is part of Henson's larger mission to destigmatise seeking treatment for mental wellbeing in the Black community and to increase cultural competence among therapists treating Black patients. Two years ago, she, along with Jenkins, started The Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation, a nonprofit named after her father, who faced mental health challenges after serving in the Vietnam War. The organisation gives scholarships to Black students who are interested in psychology, offers mental health services at schools, and works to combat recidivism. It has also sponsored a campaign to help Black people access free therapy during the pandemic, which has disproportionately impacted them.
Here, Henson shares about how she learned to speak openly about mental health, how she found a culturally competent therapist, and what she wants people to remember about their mental wellbeing amid a pandemic.
Refinery29: You’ve long been an advocate for mental health, specifically in the Black community. Why do you think it's so important — right now, specifically — to have public conversations about mental health?
Taraji P. Henson: “Especially in the Black community, we don’t talk about mental health. It’s passed down through generations. We tend to ‘push through.’ ‘Pray about your problems.’ ‘Get through it.’ 'Be a ‘strong Black woman.’ But all those stereotypes make us mentally unhealthy. And that’s what happened to me. I kept trying to push through until I couldn’t any more. And I became very depressed. And I couldn’t understand why. And when it was time to seek help, no one looked like me. I didn’t feel like I could express my feelings and not be judged. And I wasn’t being understood because the [therapists] didn’t understand my plight as a Black woman in America. [The idea for] the show was born pre-pandemic, but I’m always a firm believer that God knows best. It happened when it was supposed to happen. I’m looking at the positives, and I’m just grateful for this moment of time when we can advocate for the community.”
You mentioned how important it is to find a culturally competent therapist who looks like you. Tell me more about your experience searching for the right therapist, and how you found someone you felt safe with.
“If I’m going to come to your therapy office to unpack my pain, if you don’t understand culturally what I’m talking about — if you see me as just an ‘angry Black woman’ or someone who’s full of rage, but you don’t understand why I got there — how can you help me? How can you have compassion and empathy and understand what it is to live in the ‘hood and be a Black, single parent, to be targeted all the time because of your skin? How are you going to help me unpack my trauma? That doesn’t mean [the therapist has to be] Black. That misses the cultural mark. It’s about [the therapist] doing work, researching the history, and learning what it means to be a Black person in America. At our foundation, we offer that kind of cultural competency training for therapists.
“I found mine when I was literally at my wit’s end. I was in Chicago talking to [actress, author, and Peace of Mind guest] Gabourey Sidibe, and she said, ‘Oh my God, I have a great therapist. You need to try her.’ I did, and I said, ‘Oh my god, Gabby, this is what I’ve been looking for my entire life.’ It’s been great.”
You talk on the show about how there are certain taboos about mental health, and stigmas about it start early. What are some of your earliest memories of learning about mental health?
“I wasn’t taught about mental health at a young age. My dad struggled with it, so I knew what it was. But no one told me, ‘Okay, this is what happens if you are bipolar or have PTSD.’ It was taboo still. Even though we knew my dad was having issues, people would say, ‘You know Boris, he’s just crazy.’ And you can’t use that kind of language. It’s damaging. It keeps the stigma. People throw words around like, ‘This weather is bipolar today.’ You can’t do that. Bipolar is a real thing, and you take the weight of it when you toss the word around. The show is about educating about those things.”
So you didn’t talk about it much growing up. Do you now talk about it with your son?
“Absolutely. I’m honest with him. We talk about it in this household. We watch shows about it. We talk about how a lot of people think the homeless are out of their mind or drug addicts. And that’s not true. A lot of them are successful people who stopped taking their meds, and their families can’t even find them. We talk about people in prison and their struggles. I have these conversations with him. And just making sure he’s talking to his therapist to check on his mental health. It’s hard in this world. And now with all of this racial tension? You live with that, and you need to unpack it.”
The title of your show Peace of Mind is perfect, because I think a lot of people are looking to anything that will give them peace these days. What’s giving you peace right now?
“Well, I have a salon at my house. It started off as a place I’d get glammed up for red carpets events. But it’s turned into my salon where I can be as creative as I want to with hair and design and nails. It literally is the highlight of my day when I open up the door to the salon. I get butterflies and get excited and forget everything. That’s how I know I’m getting into a dark place. When I feel like I can’t come out [to the salon] physically? That’s when I call my therapist.”
What’s your advice for people in that situation right now, who are having a hard time getting excited about something they used to love doing?
“Find something new. Get creative. Find a new hobby. Knit. Start a garden. Take walks everyday. Find a penpal. Find something that puts joy in your heart. It doesn’t have to cost money either. Take yourself on a picnic — a socially distanced one. And remember that mental health is very important. It’s health, just like going to your dentist or your gynaecologist. You have to check on your mental — your brain operates everything else in your body. Why neglect it?”
This interview has been condensed for length and clarity.