Taraji P. Henson
Taraji P. Henson (Courtesy of borislhensonfoundation.org)

Actress Taraji P. Henson has given the discussion of mental illness in the Black community a leading role.

“I named the organization after my father because he returned broken and with little to no physical and emotional support,” said Henson, star of the television series “Empire” and the foundation’s founder. “I stand in his absence, committed to offering support to African Americans who face trauma daily simply because they are Black.”

The Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation, a new organization that has a goal of breaking the silence and prompting discussion of pervasive mental illness in the Black community, will hold a conference and benefit dinner June 7-9 at the Grand Hyatt Washington in Northwest.

The foundation is named in honor of Boris Lawrence Henson, a Vietnam veteran who returned to the U.S. suffering from mental illness and unable to find help.

Taraji Henson, author Charlamagne Tha God, and Altha J. Stewart, president of the American Psychiatric Association, are scheduled to deliver the keynote addresses.

A critical issue that gets little attention

Mental illness is an issue that needs to be addressed in the Black community. I have seen it up close.

When I was an undergraduate, I worked as an orderly at the Veterans Administration Hospital, a psychiatric hospital for veterans in Lakewood, Washington.

The Vietnam War was slowly winding down, and the hospital was beginning to admit large numbers of Vietnam veterans during the late 1960s, but I never saw or came in contact with a Black Vietnam veteran as a patient.

This was very troubling because there were a significant number of Black men who served in Vietnam.

Of the 246,000 men recruited under Project 100,000 between October 1966 and June 1969, 41 percent were Black, although Black Americans then only represented 11 percent of the U.S. population (actually, Black men represented less than 11 percent of the nation’s population).

In “Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans,” Wallace Terry wrote about the anger Black GIs felt confronting racism in combat and in America when they returned after their tour of duty. They served their country and were subjected to discrimination while risking their lives and when they returned home, most bearing these invisible wounds.

Black men discussed these issues among themselves, not with mental health professionals.

Some Blacks believe that seeking help for mental illness is a sign of weakness. Much of this revolves around how Blacks at the time and now think about mental illness.

The other Veterans Administration orderlies, who were Black men, all older than I, including my father, agreed that if a Black man sought help from a mental health professional, he was “really sick.”

Taraji Henson said: “African Americans believe that if we hold our suffering in, the feelings that plague us will go away.”

This pervasive suffering is secondary to the traumatizing racism Black men are subjected to on a daily basis from whites, other Blacks, women of all races, Hispanics, Asians, and all too many white cops, who shoot and kill unarmed Black men, claiming they “feared for their lives.”

The lack of understanding of the dire need for mental health treatment starts at the top

In 2012, Chicago Black aldermen voted to close mental health clinics in African-American neighborhoods where the clinics were mostly needed.

Moving ahead to Chicago, where I now live, the city’s Black aldermen voted to close all of the mental health clinics in Black neighborhoods at the insistence of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who leaves office on May 20 after an eight-year term.

The cost of keeping the clinics open was minimal. The shutdown of the city-operated mental health clinics saved Chicago $2 million annually.

Woodlawn Adult Health Clinic, on Chicago’s South Side, is one of the clinics that was closed. It was located close to the site where “Empire” is filmed.  The clinic served many Black men for free or at a reduced fee.

All of the Black aldermen should be ashamed,” N’ Dana Carter, a leader in the Mental Health Movement in Chicago, said in 2012 when the closings were announced.

“They all knew about the closings. They are all thieves and murderers. They have supported everything Rahm Emanuel has done to the Black community,” Carter said. “The entire Black community should have been ashamed. Except for a demonstration outside of the Woodlawn Clinic, nothing was said or done to restore badly needed mental health care services in the most vulnerable and underserved areas of the Black community.”

This correspondent is a guest contributor to The Washington Informer.

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