Named for her father, who was thought to have bipolar disorder, and run by her childhood best friend, Tracie Jade Jenkins, who serves as executive director, Henson sees the foundation as part of her legacy. “I think my mental health foundation picks up where my art leaves off,” Henson says, sneaking sips of her soup when there’s a natural lull in the conversation. “We have to deal with these traumatic situations [children experience], and these teachers and therapists and social workers need to be trained in cultural competency to be able to pinpoint [when a] child is having an issue that's deeper than just wanting to be bad in class. ” She shares the hypothetical scenario of a child with one parent in prison and the other constantly working but still not earning enough money to support the family. “We expect him to come to school and sit down and be studious,” she says. “He don't even know if he's going to see his parents when he gets home or if there will be food….
After a string of false starts, she finally found a match when her Empire costar Gabourey Sidibe introduced Henson to her own therapist, another black woman. “It was extremely important for me to find a therapist who is a black woman, just because black women live in a different world than everyone else,” Sidibe tells me via email, when I reach out to ask her about her thought process in sharing her mental health care provider with a friend and colleague. “Our problems, daily interactions, and expectations are different than most other people, so I wanted a therapist who I could cut through the societal foundation of who I am with, so that we could get to my specific issues.
At first Cookie scared her. “She was so real and so raw,” Henson recalls. “I wasn't sure I understood her. ” (For the uninitiated, Cookie Lyon, mother of three, is a woman who spends 17 years in prison for selling crack and beats one of her children with a broom in the first episode. ) In time, she has settled into the character. “She's the moral compass,” Henson says. “Cookie's that friend who fights the bullies for you. ” In between filming Empire, Henson took on movie roles, like that of Katherine G.
Today’s political climate doesn’t make it any easier, nor does the fact that black people today are still dealing with the effects of generational trauma due to slavery, Henson says. “This moment in history is another ‘Here, take this’ to us, again reminding us that we are nothing, that our lives do not matter,” she says. “Constantly, every day, we're reminded. “[It’s] 2019, going on 2020, with even more microaggressions against us every day that we got to see on the news…and we're supposed to be okay,” she adds. “It's a lot.
And it makes sense, also, that Henson cites Trayvon Martin’s death as a watershed moment for her coming to terms with her own mental health challenges. “All my life I've been bubbly and the life of the party,” she says. “Things started to shift for me when Trayvon Martin—when that happened. ” His killing stoked special pain for Henson, whose son, Marcell Johnson, was close to Martin’s age. “That's when I noticed anxiety started kicking in,” she says.
But she remained firm because she wanted real love, and she had an idea of what it looked like. ”When my father was on his deathbed and he would defecate on himself because cancer was shutting his organs down, my stepmother was in that room bare hands, no gloves, washing him, saying, ‘They don't clean him good enough in here,’” Henson says. “I believe I'm worth the fight,” she adds.
When I ask her to coin another phrase for people like me, like us—deeply sensitive black girls who’ve hardened against their will or been forced to overcome hurdle after exhausting hurdle—she more than delivers. “I'm a whole black woman, whatever comes with that,” she says. “All the emotions, all of the rage, the anger, the love, the hurt, the hope, the despair, the strength, the vulnerability. I'm all of that. Micaiah Carter.
Henson was on board, in no small part because she knew that Sidibe had done the work herself. “She's Gabby, honey,” Henson muses. “She's fabulous, she's everything, but what I do know is that she's… embraced her issues. “I love Taraji,” Sidibe says. “I see how hard she works and how much she splits herself to do for others, whether through her acting, her philanthropy, or her friends and family.
The more she explored the topic, the more committed she became to illuminating mental wellness in the black community—both by addressing the root causes and by making it easier for black folks to be open about our mental health struggles. “I hope that one day we can all be free to talk about mental health and be okay with seeking help,” she says. Micaiah Carter.