How Taraji P. Henson's Vietnam Vet Dad Inspired Her Fight for Mental Health Awareness

Taraji P. Henson is determined to end the stigma of mental illness in the Black community — and she's doing it through an organization named after her late father

Taraji P. Henson remembers her father’s struggles clearly.

Boris Lawrence Henson returned from the Vietnam War with post-traumatic stress disorder. He spoke openly about his mental health struggles, but like many in the African-American community, he was unsure where to seek help.

Boris died of cancer in 2006, just a few years after Taraji’s son’s father was murdered. Even in the midst of her own family’s grief, Taraji, 49, knew the problem extended far beyond her. With that, she set out to do something about it. The mom of one founded the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation in 2018 to encourage the African-American community to talk about mental health and to provide the community with the culturally relevant resources it desperately needs.

“I needed to do something, I needed to bring attention to this epidemic. Our children are suffering, we are suffering,” Taraji tells PEOPLE exclusively in this week’s issue, on stands now. “The numbers were alarming about the African-American youth suicide rate. Our children are killing themselves because they can’t cope. We needed to break the silence, and break the cycle.”

Taraji P Henson
Sophy Holland

She adds that the organization was the perfect way to carry on her father’s legacy.

“It was important for me to honor my father by launching the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation, named after him, because I felt like it was something that needed to be done,” the Empire star says.

  • For much more on PEOPLE’s Women Changing the World 2019, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now.
Oprah Winfrey

African Americans are 20 percent more likely to report having serious psychological distress than white people are, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health. And suicide is the third leading cause of death among African Americans ages 15 to 24, according to the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities.

These statistics intensified Taraji’s commitment to mental health awareness. Her foundation even provides scholarships to African-American students pursuing mental health careers. At schools, artists from the foundation paint bathroom walls “to remind students that they are worthy, that they are beautiful,” Taraji says.

Now, Taraji speaks openly about her own struggles with depression and anxiety as she utilizes her celebrity to eradicate the stigma around mental health for those like her.

“My father always told me, ‘If you are blessed then it’s your job to go out to the world and bless someone else,’ ” she recalls. “If I have everything, what is everything if I can’t share it. People make the world go ’round. We need each other.”

Related Articles