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Black communities aren't getting the mental health care they need. I'm helping to break the silence.

We don't talk enough about mental health in African-American communities. But staying quiet isn't helping us heal.
Image: Taraji P. Henson attends the 89th Annual Academy Awards in Los Angeles in 2017.
Taraji P. Henson attends the 89th Annual Academy Awards in Los Angeles in 2017.Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images file

People in the African-American community have long been afraid to talk about our mental health; we just don't do it. We're told to pray it away, we're told to be strong, we're told it's a sign of weakness or, a lot of times, mental health issues comes off as "rage" and is dismissed or ignored. There’s shame and taboo around the topic.

We have to break that silence.

What made me comfortable with talking about it was that my father had issues with mental illness, and he was very vocal about it. So I never thought there was something "wrong" with either having mental health challenges or talking about it. But then, when I grew up and had my own hardships — my own traumas — and it was time to deal with them head on, there was an issue: I couldn't easily find a therapist who really understood my challenges as an African-American.

Because mental health isn't talked about in our community, people don't seek it out as a career option. So we don't have a lot of therapists out there, and those who are practicing are not easy to find. I want to change that.

Beyond that, in terms of looking for a therapist, it's not even about color or culture, but about a therapist being culturally competent. Cultural competence means knowing, understanding and honoring the history of someone. For instance, you might not know exactly what it is like to live in a crack-infested neighborhood, but you do need to understand what that does to a family structure. If you come from a biased place, if you blame any systemic issues that are happening to a culture on the individual, you won't be able to guide them properly. And I can't feel safe expressing myself to a therapist if I don't feel like she understands my background and my struggle. I can't trust him with this weight that I'm carrying if I know he can't help me address it.

So, when it came time for me to look for a therapist for myself and my son, it was like looking for a purple unicorn.

My foundation, the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation, was born out of that need that I discovered, because I realized there were so many people I can help. The director of the foundation did the research and found the statistics: One in five Americans has mental illness, but African-Americans are the least likely to seek treatment, and have a long history of being misdiagnosed.

In addition to trying to combat the stigma against mental health care in African-American communities, we have three major goals. One is to get more therapists and mental health programs in urban schools: We need professionals in the school systems to recognize when kids are coming from traumatic experiences and how that impacts their ability to learn.

For instance, when I was a substitute teacher for children with disabilities, the first time I went to Compton, I pulled up to the school, and the kids were coming up to me, pointing to bullet holes in the school, and saying, "Ms. Henson, look, it was a shootout last night." That's not normal, but they were expected to go to school in that environment like it was nothing, with no counselors, no support.

And then, I was put in a class with these young boys, all African-American, who were telling me that they "can't learn" because they're special ed. I had been thinking I was there to teach children who had mental and physical disabilities, but those kids could read, and walk, and they had all of their faculties. They'd been classified as "special ed" in a school without counselors, in an environment that was clearly traumatic, in a community where there was limited access to mental health services, and told they couldn't achieve academically.

There's still so many kids like that: They have nowhere to vent, nowhere to talk about these traumatic incidents and we're expecting them to just go to school and learn. We need help in that area.

In direct response to this, my foundation recently partnered with nonprofit organizations to bring youth mental health first aid training to teachers and staff, as well as workshops in developing trauma-informed curriculum. Our partners offer tools to recognize and address children coming from traumatic situations, as well as what to do to get them some help or some kind of relief.

Second, we’d like to increase the number of African-American mental health providers by normalizing the conversation around mental health with young people at an earlier age, peeking their interest and making it cool to want to be a psychologist, therapist or counselor. We’re also giving scholarships to students who are interested in pursuing a career in the mental health field.

And, finally, to address recidivism in the prison system, we're partnering with organizations who offer programs that help formerly incarcerated people access mental health services and assist in the reintegration process into the community. Many people don't realize how many people in the prison system have undiagnosed or untreated mental health issues, and how that contributes to them winding up back in prison.

There's a lot to address when you delve into this issues of mental health in the African-American community; there are a lot of things that we must overcome. But at the end of the day, it starts with us at least being able to talk about our mental health issues. And then we can begin to address them.

As told to THINK editor Megan Carpentier, edited and condensed for clarity.