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Taraji P Henson Opens Up About Mental Health in Front of Congress

Health

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.

​4 Min Read
Business

Please Don't Put Yourself On Mute

During a recent meeting on Microsoft Teams, I couldn't seem to get a single word out.


When I tried to chime in, I kept getting interrupted. At one point two individuals talked right over me and over each other. When I thought it was finally my turn, someone else parachuted in from out of nowhere. When I raised and waved my hand as if I was in grade school to be called on (yes, I had my camera on) we swiftly moved on to the next topic. And then, completely frustrated, I stayed on mute for the remainder of the meeting. I even momentarily shut off my camera to devour the rest of my heavily bruised, brown banana. (No one needed to see that.)

This wasn't the first time I had struggled to find my voice. Since elementary school, I always preferring the back seat unless the teacher assigned me a seat in the front. In high school, I did piles of extra credit or mini-reports to offset my 0% in class participation. In college, I went into each lecture nauseous and with wasted prayers — wishing and hoping that I wouldn't be cold-called on by the professor.

By the time I got to Corporate America, it was clear that if I wanted to lead, I needed to pull my chair up (and sometimes bring my own), sit right at the table front and center, and ask for others to make space for me. From then on, I found my voice and never stop using it.

But now, all of a sudden, in this forced social experiment of mass remote working, I was having trouble being heard… again. None of the coaching I had given myself and other women on finding your voice seemed to work when my voice was being projected across a conference call and not a conference room.

I couldn't read any body language. I couldn't see if others were about to jump in and I should wait or if it was my time to speak. They couldn't see if I had something to say. For our Microsoft teams setting, you can only see a few faces on your screen, the rest are icons at the bottom of the window with a static picture or even just their name. And, even then, I couldn't see some people simply because they wouldn't turn their cameras on.

If I did get a chance to speak and cracked a funny joke, well, I didn't hear any laughing. Most people were on mute. Or maybe the joke wasn't that funny?

At one point, I could hear some heavy breathing and the unwrapping of (what I could only assume was) a candy bar. I imagined it was a Nestle Crunch Bar as my tummy rumbled in response to the crinkling of unwrapped candy. (There is a right and a wrong time to mute, people.)

At another point, I did see one face nodding at me blankly.

They say that remote working will be good for women. They say it will level the playing field. They say it will be more inclusive. But it won't be for me and others if I don't speak up now.

  • Start with turning your camera on and encouraging others to do the same. I was recently in a two-person meeting. My camera was on, but the other person wouldn't turn theirs on. In that case, ten minutes in, I turned my camera off. You can't stare at my fuzzy eyebrows and my pile of laundry in the background if I can't do the same to you. When you have a willing participant, you'd be surprised by how helpful it can be to make actual eye contact with someone, even on a computer (and despite the fuzzy eyebrows).
  • Use the chatbox. Enter in your questions. Enter in your comments. Dialogue back and forth. Type in a joke. I did that recently and someone entered back a laughing face — reaffirming that I was, indeed, funny.
  • Designate a facilitator for the meeting: someone leading, coaching, and guiding. On my most recent call, a leader went around ensuring everyone was able to contribute fairly. She also ensured she asked for feedback on a specific topic and helped move the discussion around so no one person took up all the airtime.
  • Unmute yourself. Please don't just sit there on mute for the entire meeting. Jump in and speak up. You will be interrupted. You will interrupt others. But don't get frustrated or discouraged — this is what work is now — just keep showing up and contributing.
  • Smile, and smile big. Nod your head in agreement. Laugh. Give a thumbs up; give two! Wave. Make a heart with your hands. Signal to others on the call who are contributing that you support and value them. They will do the same in return when your turn comes to contribute.

It's too easy to keep your camera turned off. It's too easy to stay on mute. It's too easy to disappear. But now is not the time to disappear. Now is the time to stay engaged and networked within our organizations and communities.

So please don't put yourself on mute.

Well, actually, please do put yourself on mute so I don't have to hear your heavy breathing, candy bar crunching, or tinkling bathroom break.

But after that, please take yourself off mute so you can reclaim your seat (and your voice) at the table.