Taraji P. Henson got emotional as she testified before Congress on Friday about the need for mental health counselors and education, especially in the black community, in wake of a rise in suicides of young people.
The Empire star, who has an adult son, also talked about her own battle with depression and anxiety, which she has been open about, as she spoke before the Congressional Black Caucus Emergency Taskforce on Black Youth Suicide and Mental Health.
“I really don’t know how to fix this problem, I just know that the suicide rate is rising,” she said. “I just know that ages of the children that are committing suicide are getting younger and younger.”
A study published in JAMA Pediatrics earlier this year showed that between 2007 and 2015, annual ER visits relating to suicide by people aged 5 to 18 rose from 2.2 percent to 3.5 percent, and from 580,000 to 1.2 million.
“It breaks my heart to know that 5-year-old children are contemplating life and death,” Henson said. “I just…I’m sorry. That one is tough for me. So I’m here to appeal to you, because this is a national crisis. When I hear of kids going into bathrooms, cutting themselves, you’re supposed to feel safe in school.”
“I’m here using my celebrity, using my voice, to put a face to this because I also suffer from depression and anxiety,” she continued. “And if you’re a human living in today’s world, I don’t know how you’re not suffering in any way, I mean if you turn on the news, that’s PTSD right there. 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 the children.”
Henson is the founder of the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation, which aims to end the stigma surrounding mental illness in the black community. The group is named after the actress’ late father, who returned from the Vietnam War with mental health issues.
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“I founded this foundation because there was a problem,” she said. “My father passed in ’06. Two years prior to that, my son’s father was murdered here in Washington D.C. That’s trauma, not only for my son but for myself…it dawned on me the reason why we don’t have many psychiatrists…that they’re not easily accessible, is because we in the African-American community, we don’t deal with mental health issues.”
“We don’t even talk about it,” she said. “We’ve been taught to pray our problems away, we’ve been demonized for coming out saying we have issues and we have trust issues. I need the person sitting opposite from me when I go seek help for my mental…to be culturally competent.”
Henson recalled her past experiences as a special education teacher of mostly black male students in the Crenshaw neighborhood in Los Angeles. She talked about how their parents were absent, how one resorted to stealing food so he could eat, and how they appeared unaffected by shootings.
“We can’t give up on our kids and I think that’s where it starts,” she said. “I think we implement mental illness or mental health education in school. It needs to be a subject…we need to talk about it. The more we talk about it, the more people will feel they can talk about.”
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