JAY-Z, Taraji P. Henson, Kendrick Sampson and More Stars Advocating for Mental Health in the Black Community
By Jennifer Drysdale
Amid stresses like the continued fight for racial equality and anxieties about returning to normal life after lockdown, mental health is more important than ever. May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and ET is shining a light on stars trying to break the stigma.
In a 2018 conversation with JAY-Z, CNN's Van Jones opened up about the lack of mental health support for Black Americans.
"Mental health, trauma, PTSD is so rampant in our community," he said. "As scared as Black folks are of the cops, we're even more scared of therapists," he quipped.
"Yeah, it's a stigma," JAY-Z agreed. "As you grow, you realize the ridiculousness of the stigma attached to it. It's like, what? You just talk to someone about your problems."
Mental health has been stigmatized in many communities, but perhaps most so in communities of color. There are fewer resources and treatment opportunities for those struggling with mental health issues in the Black community, and according to the American Psychological Association, the therapist workforce is considerably less diverse compared to the overall U.S. workforce. In 2013, only 5.3% of therapists were Black.
That's why Taraji P. Henson has put her efforts behind connecting Black Americans with the mental health resources they need. She, JAY-Z and Kendrick Sampson are just a few of the stars who have used their platforms to speak out about the importance of mental health, especially in the Black community.
TARAJI P. HENSON
Henson has been candid about her struggle with depression. The Empire star also watched her father battle mental health issues after his tour of duty in the Vietnam War, and in 2018, she started the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation in his honor, an organization aiming to eradicate the stigma around mental health issues in the Black community.
"I suffer from depression," she told Variety in 2019. "My anxiety is kicking up even more every day, and I’ve never really dealt with anxiety like that. It’s something new."
The actress said "the only way I can get through it" is by regularly talking it out with a therapist.
"You can talk to your friends, but you need a professional who can give you exercises. So that when you’re on the ledge, you have things to say to yourself that will get you off that ledge and past your weakest moments. It’s a professional -- someone who studies the human mind, and someone who has no stakes involved," she said. "Their job is to make sure you’re mentally sound, whatever that is, and telling you the truth, which might hurt. Sometimes your friends don’t want to hurt your feelings. If I’m going to change for the better, I need honesty, and sometimes your friends and family don’t have it in them to be brutally honest."
Henson noted that she went through several therapists, and learned from her experience that it's up to her to put in the work.
"It gets frustrating because you’re waiting for them to fix you, but it’s not that easy. I had to go through several therapists that I felt comfortable talking to, or that I felt was moving me forward and that I was making some progress with, and that takes time," she recalled. "I remember the first time I went, I was angry, because I was like, 'She didn’t tell me nothing! She didn’t tell me anything!' You’re not going to figure it all out in one sitting."
In May, Henson launched The Unspoken Curriculum, a mental health campaign that provides a safe place for children to discuss mental health issues in the schools and aid them in combatting distress in classrooms from racial bias. The inspiration for the six-week program came to the actress from the devastating events of the past year -- ongoing instances of police brutality, the mounting number of racist attacks, and COVID-19's tragic impact on Black communities.
"We're in a state of emergency right now," Henson told People. "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."
The rapper opened up about his mental health journey while speaking with the New York Times in 2017, revealing that he started seeing a therapist.
"I grew so much from the experience," he said, describing how he previously "shut down" his emotions. "But I think the most important thing I got is that everything is connected. Every emotion is connected and it comes from somewhere. And just being aware of it. Being aware of it in everyday life puts you at such a ... you're at such an advantage."
In that 2018 chat with Jones, JAY-Z further discussed the "stigma" surrounding mental health in the Black community.
"I think, actually, it should be in our schools," the rapper said of therapy and mental health resources. "Children have the most going on ... social anxiety and all these things are happening to you, and you don't have the language to navigate it."
Sampson has been open about his history with mental health and dealing with his own anxiety, and told ET last year that he's grateful to be able to continue the conversation through his character, Nathan, on Insecure.
"It's a very personal thing to me because of my history with poor mental health and anxiety, and my brother's struggle with mental illness. We actually have a lot of various mental illnesses and poor mental health issues in my family, and substance abuse and such, as I think many families do. As a culture in this country, and even right now, as you can see, whenever there's a crisis, whenever something happens... especially right now, Black folk are under attack. Their mental health is under attack," he shared.
"You can't be born in this country as a person of color, but especially as a Black person, without generational trauma, so that's our baseline. And then things get layered on top of that, and it's hard to deal with those things and have the language because we are taught to hide those perceived weaknesses or vulnerabilities," he continued. "I’m working on that really hard with my nonprofit, BLD PWR, what tools and systems are out there to help us work through these things. So, it's an incredible opportunity to be able to talk about something I'm really passionate about."
The Destiny's Child member revealed in late 2018 that, following her Coachella appearance with Beyoncé and Kelly Rowland months prior, she fell into a deep depression, which led her to check in to a treatment facility.
"I was like, 'Just fight it, you've been here before,'" she said in a November 2018 interview on Good Morning America. "I'm identifying it... I just didn't do enough... so for months, I was slipping and slipping and slipping [and] before you knew it, I was at the bottom of the pit looking up like, 'Am I really here again?' And I suffered by myself. I didn't want to tell anybody."
This was Williams' second bout with a deep depression, and she was worried about the judgement she'd receive from friends, family and the public. "I didn't want anyone to be like, 'Oh my gosh, here we go again. I thought you were over it,'" she confessed.
The singer also opened up about society's tendency to call people struggling with mental health issues "crazy."
"When I was in the mental health facility, I didn't see anybody that looked crazy. I didn't see anybody strapped up, I didn't see anybody doing crazy behavior. And literally since then, I watch my mouth. I don't call people crazy anymore. Some people... they just need help," she shared.
Braxton, who was hospitalized last year and subsequently transferred and treated at a facility specializing in mental health, has opened up about struggles on her podcast, Under Construction. In a Februaryinterview with ET, she said she hoped her openness on the topic would encourage others to approach mental health in the same way.
"I wanted to normalize mental health and I also wanted to create a platform to heal out loud," Braxton shared. "I just feel that my ministry now, is to give my struggles, my journey and not be ashamed of it so the next person will feel the same way."
"I definitely am someone who knows what rock bottom looks like, what it feels like, and not being able to pull myself out," she added. "So the only thing that can get you out is your mind. You have to think positive and be positive and that's just what I did."
In a candid social media post on his 31st birthday in 2019, Big Sean addressed some personal struggles he had previously decided to keep private. "I wasn't feeling like myself and I couldn't figure out why," he described, sharing that he "took a step back" to analyze why he felt so "lost."
"I been meditating since I was seventeen years old. That helps with anxiety, depression, all them things. It wasn’t doing it all the way for this, so I knew this required some special attention," Sean shared. "I got a good therapist. I was blessed enough to talk to some super spiritual people. They made me realize one thing I was missing in my life, and the one thing I was missing was clarity."
"I needed clarity. Clarity about who was around me, what I was doing," he said, explaining that music felt like a burden, and his relationships were toxic or struggling. "I started realizing that you can't give or depend on somebody for love or a good time and all that if you can't give it to yourself. I started doing things by myself or just doing things I never thought I'd do, like going skydiving or just whatever I thought was fun, just doing it."
"In the midst of that, I definitely rediscovered myself and found a whole new energy, and me being a source of it and not somebody else," he concluded.
JADA PINKETT SMITH
In an emotional Instagram post in 2018, Pinkett Smith opened up about dealing with suicidal thoughts in the past, and the years she's spent "healing."
"One thing I’ve learned in my life over the years is that mental health is something we should practice daily, not just when issues arise," she wrote. "We should take care of our mind and spirit in the same way we do our body. With the suicides of Kate [Spade] and Anthony [Bourdain] it brought up feelings of when I was in such despair and had considered the same demise...often. In the years I spent towards my healing, many moons ago, I realized the mind and heart can be extremely delicate without the foundation of a formidable spirit. What I eat, what I watch on TV, what music I listen to, how I care for my body, my spiritual practice, what people I surround myself with, the amount of stress I allow and so on... either contribute to or deteriorate my mental health."
The actress said that "mental health is a daily practice for me." "It’s a practice of deep self-love. May Kate and Anthony Rest In Peace. Many may not understand... but I do, and this morning I have the deepest gratitude that I pulled through."
In 2016, Kid Cudi revealed in a candid Facebook post that he was struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts.
"I am not at peace. I haven’t been since you’ve known me," he wrote. "If I didn’t come here, I would’ve done something to myself. I simply am a damaged human swimming in a pool of emotions everyday of my life. Theres a raging violent storm inside of my heart at all times. Idk what peace feels like. Idk how to relax."
"My anxiety and depression have ruled my life for as long as I can remember and I never leave the house because of it," Cudi continued. "I cant make new friends because of it. I don’t trust anyone because of it and Im tired of being held back in my life. I deserve to have peace."
Cudi's openness about his mental health has been so impactful that he's even quoted in a psychology textbook, Fundamentals of Abnormal Psychology.
"Wow this is awesome!!" he tweeted in response to his inclusion in the book.
In a 2019 piece for Harper's Bazaar, Williams opened up about her mental struggles following her 2018 U.S. Open defeat. While she was happy for her opponent, Naomi Osaka, Williams said she "felt defeated and disrespected by a sport that I love."
She said her sleepless nights and constant thoughts of the defeat led to therapy. "I was searching for answers, and although I felt like I was making progress, I still wasn’t ready to pick up a racket. Finally I realized that there was only one way for me to move forward. It was time for me to apologize to the person who deserved it the most," Williams explained.
Washington told Glamour in 2015 that she prioritizes her mental health as much as her physical health.
"I say that publicly because I think it's really important to take the stigma away from mental health... My brain and my heart are really important to me. I don't know why I wouldn't seek help to have those things be as healthy as my teeth. I go to the dentist. So why wouldn't I go to a shrink?" she asked.
In another interview, with Essence, Washington discussed how therapy affected other aspects of her life. "Learning how to love myself and my body is a lifelong process. But I definitely don't struggle the way I used to. Therapy helped me realize that maybe it's OK for me to communicate my feelings. Instead of literally stuffing them down with food, maybe it's OK for me to express myself," she said.
In a 2014 interview with ET, the comedian admitted that he’d suffered a debilitating mental breakdown on his 42nd birthday.
"I was there by myself, in my bedroom and I had a complete breakdown … Just go ahead and imagine for yourself a brother in his underwear, in his room, you got snot," Brady said. "And that birthday was the beginning of, 'OK, I've got to make a change.'"
The Whose Line Is It Anyway? star also pointed out the double standard in Hollywood when it comes to admitting to depression as opposed to a drug problem.
"Nobody wants to out themselves, so to speak, or if they out themselves, it's in a very -- I hate to say it -- Hollywood way," he said. "It's actually cool to go into rehab for some people. ... But if someone says, 'I'm clinically depressed,' that sounds like someone's making something up. It's like, ‘Psst, you're not depressed.'"
"It took me a while to get my stuff together to go, 'You know what? If you're not happy, you have to do something about it,'" Brady shared. "Just to admit that you are feeling this way is a huge step. To claim that, to say, 'Why do I feel dark? Why do I feel unhappy? Let me do something about this.'"
The performer revealed in an open letter to Essence readers in 2018 that she had struggled with depression throughout her life.
"I struggled with depression. The struggle was intense ... Low self-esteem might be rooted in childhood feelings of inferiority. It could relate to failing to meet impossibly high standards. And of course there are always the societal issues of racism and sexism," Jackson wrote. "Put it all together and depression is a tenacious and scary condition. Thankfully, I found my way through it."
Jackson said that after her feelings of inadequacy as a child, feelings of "despair" continued into her adult life.
"In my forties: Like millions of women in the world, I still heard voices inside my head berating me, voices questioning my value," she shared. "Happiness was elusive. A reunion with old friends might make me happy. A call from a colleague might make me happy. But because sometimes I saw my failed relationships as my fault, I easily fell into despair."
The singer said the birth of her son, Eissa, brought her new perspective.
"The height of happiness is holding my baby son in my arms and hearing him coo, or when I look into his smiling eyes and watch him respond to my tenderness," she said. "When I kiss him. When I sing him softly to sleep. During those sacred times, happiness is everywhere. Happiness is in gratitude to God. Happiness is saying, 'Thank you, God, for my life, my energy and my capacity to grow in love.'"