“Empire” actress Taraji P. Henson wants a discussion of mental health in the black community to have a leading role


By Frederick H. Lowe


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 7th through June 9th at the Grand Hyatt Washington in  Washington, D. C.

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

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 Taraji P. 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.”

Taraji Henson, author Charlamagne Tha God, and Altha J. Stewart, MD, 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% were black, although black Americans then only represented 11% 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 GI’s 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.

[su_pullquote align=”right”]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.[/su_pullquote]

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

That amount was 1 percent of CDPH’s (Chicago Department of Public Health’s) $169.2 million budget or .03% of Chicago’s 2012 budget of $6.3 billion, according to an analysis of the city’s budget by District Council 31 and mental health activists.

The report, titled “Dumping Responsibility: The Case Against Closing CDPH Mental Health Clinics,” was prepared by The Mental Health Movement and published in January 2014.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees District 31, the union that represented clinic workers, reported that 61 percent of the clients of these shuttered clinics were African American. Many of the patients were indigent, union officials said. (A white ward on the city’s far northwest side raised funds from residents to keep their mental health clinic open)

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.” 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.

The closing left people in need without a ladder

William Robinson was one of the men who received help at the Woodlawn Clinic. Robinson was afraid to leave his apartment because he had been robbed twice on the street at gunpoint. He had very little to eat, but he found an emphatic therapist in Jan Gilmore. Gilmore would pick up Robinson and take him to a  fast-food restaurant and buy Robinson a meal.  Afterward, they would go to the Woodlawn Clinic and hold their scheduled weekly therapy session.

A dire need for black clinicians and for people who know how to handle calls from the mentally ill

Accessible mental health services may have prevented a bloodbath on Chicago’s West Side in which a Chicago cop shot and killed two black people.

. The incident was caused by an emotionally disturbed man seeking help, an incompetent black woman police operator, and a brutal white cop.

Quintonio LeGrier was murdered by a police officer while seeking help following a nervous breakdown.

Quintonio LeGrier, a 19-year-old college student, was suffering from what was likely a manic or psychotic episode, and he was seeking help. He called the police.

LeGrier reached a black woman police operator who hung up on him several times before dispatching Robert Rialmo, a Chicago cop, to his home on Chicago’s West Side. (A fundraiser was held last week for Rialmo, who is on unpaid leave, at Chicago Fraternal Order of Police Headquarters).

Rialmo shot to death Bette Jones, the building’s first-floor tenant who had opened the front door to let him inside. Jones was a grandmother, suffering from ovarian cancer. She was 55.

LeGrier, who lived on the second floor, ran down stairs

Upon seeing LeGrier, Rialmo murdered him, claiming LeGrier charged at him with a baseball bat.

I was at the location of the double murder all day the day after on December 26, 2015. And like other reporters, I was stunned at what happened and what had sparked it.

 Black organizations are reaching out to help the mentally ill

In 2018, the West Side Community Triage Center opened to treat the growing number of residents living in the community suffering from mental illness instead of having police haul them off to Cook County Jail.

Chicago Alderman Jason C. Ervin, who attended the opening day ceremony, said afterward that if the Triage Center had existed in 2015, both Jones and LeGrier might still be alive.

The foundation is raising money help pay therapists

The Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation’s June conference has two goals, including raising $500,000 to supplement the reduced fees therapists receive treating black patients.

The money will also go towards elevating and normalizing the conversation about mental illness in the African-American community.

During the two-day conference, 350 to 400 are expected to attend. They will include psychologists, social workers, counselors and physicians, The professionals will develop strategies to end the stigma of mental illness that have created barriers to treatment will be discussed. The conference will also seek pathways to combine research and resources by supporting those who need help.

Though the conference is sold out, please visit the foundation’s website to acquaint yourself with it, its mission, and conference program details.

More information can be found at <>.



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