How Taraji P. Henson Is Helping To Boost HBCU Mental Health With ‘She Care Wellness Pods’
Alabama State University senior Diamond Richard is making great strides toward achieving her goal of entering medical school and becoming an OB-GYN physician. But it hasn’t been easy because of the mental health problems she battled from her freshman year, Richard told BET.com.
She’s far from alone. The African American community is quietly facing a mental health crisis, with Black youth and young adults taking the brunt of it. Yet we seek and receive treatment for depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems at a lower rate than Whites.
Fortunately for Richard and other ASU students, Taraji P. Henson’s Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation, in partnership with the Kate Spade New York, brought free mental health resources to the campus in April with its delivery of “She Care Wellness Pods.”
The pods for female students gives them access to therapy sessions, quiet spaces, yoga and a variety of workshops. ASU women are the first to participate in the program that will expand to men and other HBCU campuses.
In the next episode of America in Black, which airs May 14, BET correspondent Ed Gordon asks Richard how important it is to have the wellness pods on campus, given the rigors of academic life.
Richard shares that her mental health issues made the first two years of college really rough. But having access to invaluable mental health resources, especially being able to “talk with somebody and share what you’ve been through,” makes a huge difference.
Speaking with BET.com, Richard revealed that she entered her freshman year at ASU struggling with past trauma, depression, thoughts of suicide and suffered a mental breakdown.
“I was holding onto secrets that I never told until later and had no one to talk to about it,” she told BET.com, “so, I was suffering in silence.”
Eventually, the Tuscaloosa native turned a corner and improved her mental health, “first and foremost, was God, praying, journaling, writing poetry and then meeting some great people who helped,” said Richard.
She advises others struggling with mental health problems to seek therapy and someone to talk to. “Also, now that the women’s pods are on campus, utilize them,” Richard added. “I do feel that yoga, mindfulness and surrounding yourself with positive energy would be a great help.”
Black youth endure a distinct kind of trauma compared to their White peers, as The Washington Post has reported. They experience higher rates of poverty, illnesses without access to quality health care, racism and exposure to violence, as well as pent-up anguish and outrage over seeing video of case-after-case of police brutality, such as the 2020 murder of George Floyd. Studies show that about 9 percent of Black youth suffer major depression but only about 40 percent of them receive treatment.
If untreated, these cases too often lead to self-harm. Indeed, suicide attempts among Black adolescents increased 73 percent between 1991 and 2017, while attempts among White youth decreased during that same period, according to the American Psychological Association.
But the crisis isn’t just among Black youth, the overall suicide rate among Black people between 2018 and 2021 increased by 19.2 percent, a CDC analysis showed.
On America in Black , Henson explains to Gordon that she launched her foundation, named for her father, out of the struggle to cope as a single mother raising a Black son alone and not knowing where to find “culturally competent therapists.”
Henson recalls to Gordon that she called her best friend, Tracie Jenkins, and talked about her challenge to find Black mental health professionals and wondered how people in our community who lack financial resources could possibly access the quality mental health care that she could afford.
“So I felt inclined to do something. My father always would say, 'if you are a blessing, be a blessing.' And that's how I live my life,” Henson says. “So I couldn't take care of myself and be selfish with that. How do I help a whole community with their mental struggles? And so that's how the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation was founded.
Jenkins, executive director of the foundation, told BET.com that the organization, now in its fifth year, is focused on “eradicating the stigma around mental health in the Black community,” which has been one of the obstacles to seeking treatment.
“There's a trust issue with America,” Jenkins explained. “We can look at police brutality. We can look at all of the social injustices that are around us. There's nothing there that says, trust the system.”
This distrust is not without merit. The infamous Tuskegee Experiment is perhaps the best known example of why distrust of the medical establishment exists. From 1932 to 1972, U.S. government scientists experimented with the lives of poor Black men without their knowledge and got away with it. Health care professionals also have certain biases, based on racial stereotypes, that harm Black patients, according to the American Medical Association.
At the same time, Jenkins said that many in our community are reluctant to “tell their business” because there’s “a penalty attached to vulnerability.”
To avoid the appearance of weakness in a community that has survived through slavery, Jim Crow and ongoing systemic racism, many choose to suffer in silence or rely only on prayer.
Destigmatizing mental health, especially in the Black community, has led to a rebranding of sorts. Mental health is now discussed in the context of other well-being practices, such as getting enough sleep, exercising, and eating a healthy diet.
“So it's definitely a more holistic approach. Mental Health is stigmatizing as a terminology because we associate it with a clinical approach. It's a person wearing a white coat telling you that you’re crazy. It's all of this language that has been a barrier for African Americans, at least, to seek help,” Jenkins said, “but we want to have this wellness, 360 kind of approach, where you can find yourself in that space.”
In this initial phase, the foundation is focusing on bringing mental health resources to women on HBCU campuses because Black women face daunting challenges. Jenkins pointed to data showing that more than 80 percent of Black mothers are the breadwinners in their household.
More than four in five Black moms (81.1 percent) are the primary financial supporters of their family, with about 60 percent of them as single mothers, according to a study from the nonprofit Institute for Women’s Policy Research.
Jenkins added: “You couple that with being worried about whether your son is going to come home safely at night. Couple that with leading movements for equality in both our justice system and our workplace, where we are the last on the totem pole to be paid a fair wage. Young Black women are going to walk right into all of these stressors, so they need to be armed and ready for that.”
Ultimately, the foundation plans to place wellness pods throughout Black communities to meet people where they are. “So whether it is in a community center, at a senior hall, or at a sports arena, wherever Black folk are gathering, we want to be there,” she said.
For a directory of mental health providers and programs servicing the African American community, visit here. Join BET Thrive and Taraji P. Henson to give 1 million hours of cost-free mental health services. Click here to learn more about how to donate.
The next episode of America in Black airs May 14. It is available across BET and CBS’ platforms, including BET+ and the CBS News Streaming Network.