The Unspoken Curriculum is a six-week program that Henson, who once worked as a substitute teacher, designed to help Black children identify racial bias at school and speak openly about mental health

By Morgan Smith
May 17, 2021 09:00 AM
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Taraji P. Henson is on a mission to combat racial bias in the classroom — and the mental distress it causes Black children. 

In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, the Empire star exclusively tells PEOPLE she is launching The Unspoken Curriculum, a new mental health campaign that will help Black students recognize signs of trauma and empower them to seek help. 

"We're in a state of emergency right now," says Henson, whose inspiration for the program comes from the events of the past 16 months — including the COVID-19 pandemic's devastating impact on Black communities as well as ongoing instances of police brutality and racial injustice.

"But it takes us to change it… we can't hide the ugly, you've got to deal with the good and the bad if we want to see change," she adds.

The Unspoken Curriculum is a six-week program running from May 17 until June 21 that will include discussions with mental health experts and virtual hangout spaces moderated by therapists and educators, where students can speak openly about mental health and their experiences in school. Henson helped design the curriculum through her mental health non-profit, The Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation, with support from public relations firm Edelman.

taraji at Sousa Middle School, DC
Taraji P. Henson
| Credit: Scott Midgett
taraji at Sousa Middle School, DC
Taraji P. Henson
| Credit: Scott Midgett

Henson worked as a substitute teacher before making her silver screen debut as Yvette in 2001's Baby Boy. She tells PEOPLE she witnessed racial bias against Black students firsthand. 

"I taught a special education class, but all of the students were Black boys who had all of their mental and physical capabilities. These children came from traumatic home situations, and the school labeled them 'special ed,'" she recalls.  

"These students were only in the 4th grade and they would grab my hand and say, 'Ms. Henson! Ms. Henson! There was a shootout nearby last night, look at the bullet holes in the wall,' and laugh," she continues. "That's trauma — that's not something to celebrate or normalize."

Some of her students would get caught by police stealing food from local stores because they had nothing to eat in their homes. 

"We need more professionals in education to recognize children dealing with trauma and help them, not criminalize them," she says. 

Black youth in the United States suffer from discrimination, illness and poverty at significantly higher rates than their white peers, according to the American Psychological Association. These factors have driven a rise in suicide deaths among Black children: a 2018 study from Ohio State University's Nationwide Children's Hospital shows that suicide rates for Black children ages 5-12 were roughly two times higher than those of white children in the same age group. That difference has only been growing over the past 15-20 years. 

Henson recognizes that the racial bias she encountered in her education while growing up in Maryland has continued to negatively impact her as an adult. 

RELATED VIDEO: Taraji P. Henson Accepts Award for Mental Health Advocacy

"Working in Hollywood, I'm less confident to speak out because I'll think, 'I don't want to be made out to be the Black woman with an attitude,'" she says. "But why shouldn't I be able to speak my mind? These are things that, at 50, I'm still dealing with."

Henson hopes The Unspoken Curriculum helps break this harmful trend.

"The more we talk about it, and the more we educate ourselves," she says, "the more we know how to do better."

To support the Boris L. Henson Foundation, text "NOSTIGMA" to 707070 or read more here.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text "STRENGTH" to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

To help combat systemic racism, consider learning from or donating to these organizations: