Content published below is from SELF’s Taraji P. Henson on Living with Depression and Anxiety.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. As we continue to share stories, we will focus on mental health issues and challenges. Today’s post features one of our favorites, Taraji P. Henson – she shared how she’s been living with depression and anxiety and how it helped her build a foundation to help others.
Watch the video or read the transcript below.
Living with Depression and Anxiety Story
What I find disturbing in our community, the African-American community is that we can talk about a thyroid, we can talk about cancer, breast cancer, AIDS even, but we won’t deal with the mental.
And that’s an issue.
I struggle with depression and anxiety. I would have to say I realized it about two years ago. I noticed the mood swings, like one day I’d be up and the next day I’d be down, feeling like I don’t want to go out in public. Almost agoraphobic like, “Ugh, too much to deal with.” Feeling really awkward in my skin, feeling out of sorts. And just down, like Debbie Downer, like a dark cloud. And then there would be days where my brain wouldn’t stop racing which I would think of the worst scenarios in the world which would heighten my anxiety.
And people were like, “You just need to meditate and yoga and things like that.” And I would do that but my brain would still race. For me, there was no shame when I started to recognize it. It was like that I have to get some help because I’m the life of the party and when I go dark, I go dark. I don’t want to leave the house and my friends started to notice me pulling back. My father who also had his issues with mental health was really open about it, about his manic depression. But as I think back no one else really talked about it.
It was hush hush. Well you know he just crazy. Or things like that. For my dad, what he needed was a culturally competent therapist. And it’s not even about the skin color or the race. It’s about being culturally competent and the reason why we can’t find culturally competent therapists is that at home in the African-American community we don’t talk about mental health.
It’s a stigma surrounding it and when you have no one to talk to what a person usually does is they will try to self-medicate. We’re just not allowed to be vulnerable. We have to be strong all the time. This is 400 years of damage, 400 years of trauma that we have not dealt with, and the way we deal with it is to be strong, put on a strong face. Nothing’s wrong with you. You don’t have mental health, you’re not gay. Don’t, you’re not allowed to be human. That’s a lie.
We hurt and we’re suffering. When you think about the trauma the African-American community has been through since we’ve been brought to this country, we have not dealt with that. And then you get to these microaggressions that are happening right in front of our faces every day on television, women’s sons are being taken from them for no reason at all. And through that, we still have to be strong. How dare you, how dare you. How dare you put that on me. I felt pressure to be strong as a black woman in Hollywood because I kept hearing that term. Everyone kept saying, Be a strong black woman, strong black woman. Then I realized that’s a myth. It means that I’m some superhuman in some kind of way where nothing affects me and that is so far from the truth.
Sometimes I don’t want to be strong. Sometimes the weight is just too much and to put on that facade like you’re strong all the time that’s exactly what it is, a facade. That’s whack. You have to be human and human means you’re vulnerable. And human means you’re layered. And being in an industry where you’re getting paid 52 cents on the dollar compared to a white male, things like that weigh on your soul. Because I’m an artist and I’m an artist to the bones. So, when I work I give you all of me. And to know that all of me is only worth 52 cents on the dollar of what he’s getting paid, that hurts.
A lot of that stuff started weighing on me and dimming my light. And I had to just get control of it. And what I started to do was started making me feel good about it is not keeping it in and talking about it. You know?
Because if you talk, maybe things will get fixed. I felt such a relief when I finally said it publicly. Like, I suffer from this. People just, it was an outpour, it was an outpour. People, it was like, they were like this, and all of a sudden they felt free to speak on it.
When I got back above water, when I stopped suffocating myself, I was drowning and once I released my truth, once I spoke my truth, I started to float back. That’s what it is, it’s luggage, it’s baggage and it will weigh you down. You better unpack those trunks and get that mess out and deal with it. It’s okay, we’re human. No one’s perfect. Perfection is the perfect lie. When my therapist said that, my wings sprouted. The pressure of trying to be something perfect that doesn’t exist is crazy. Let go of that myth.
When I’m vulnerable, I’m scared or I’m having these non-pleasant thoughts, I let it run because if you muffle it’s only gonna resurface again. So, you have to let it run and play out like a faucet. Just let it run until the water runs out and then when it’s over, you pick yourself back up. Because your mind will play tricks on you. I talk to myself and I think more people need to talk to themselves because you work things out. And it’s not, people can call it crazy, whatever. I even catch myself doing it in public and I have to stop. But it’s just a way to work things out and it’s okay. It’s okay. I will have a full-on conversation with myself in the mirror.
When you have issues and you have no one to talk to, and the walls are closing in and the voices are getting too loud, what I notice is people will start to self-medicate because you want to feel good. So, they turn to alcohol, they turn to drugs and we are seeing this with the youth a lot. We’re seeing a suicide rate shoot up among African-American teens. That, when I heard the statistics and I heard when the ages start at five, that one, that’s a hard pill to swallow. When you’re five, you shouldn’t even know what the word suicide means. How did we get into this place where children are not allowed to be children? They’re contemplating life and death at five? That one fucks me up every time. I can’t even say it. I just know when I was five, I wanted to live. Every day I wanted to live.
I wanted to wake up, I wanted to go and play. Where are we as a society when our babies don’t want to live anymore? That’s, we have to do something now. We can not be quiet anymore. When you’re quiet, things aren’t fixed. It gets worse. I’m a celebrity and at this point, everybody kept asking me, Do you have a charity? And I really couldn’t find anything that I was passionate about and then I was like, This is it. Do you know what I mean? Because this is something I’m really passionate about. This is something that is a necessity for me. And so, we have to break this cycle of keeping our mouths closed.
So, I called my best friend who also has a lifetime of suffering from anxiety and that’s when we decided to birth the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation named after my father. So, I think he’d be really proud. I felt such an urgency to do something. I felt like it was my mission to give back to these children because they’re having coping issues. And so, our, my foundation is, what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to get these babies while they’re kids.
So, we infiltrate the school, we get counselors in there who can see a child dealing with a traumatic situation at home because these kids come to school from trauma, from traumatic situations at home and we expect them to learn, to sit down and focus. I’m speaking up now because we are facing a national crisis with children committing suicide. I want people to know that it is okay to get, seek help for mental health. There is nothing wrong with it.
You go to the dentist, don’t you? You go get your yearly check up. Better check on your mental.