In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, the actress announced the launch of 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."
Henson, who was a substitute teacher before she made her acting debut in 2001's Baby Boy, helped design the curriculum with her firsthand experiences witnessing racial bias against Black students, in mind.
"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 recalled. "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. That's trauma — that's not something to celebrate or normalize."
She added that schools need more professionals who can recognize children dealing with trauma and help them, "not criminalize them."
The Unspoken Curriculum runs from May 17 until June 21 and includes 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 set up the program through her mental health non-profit, the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation, which she started in 2018 after witnessing her father battle mental health issues after his tour of duty in the Vietnam War. She told People that she hopes The Unspoken Curriculum helps break the trend of racial bias affecting Black children well into their adult lives.
"The more we talk about it, and the more we educate ourselves, the more we know how to do better," she said.
Mental health in the Black community has been at the forefront of Henson's mind for a while now. Along with her non-profit, Henson has recently kicked off her Facebook Watch series, Peace of Mind With Taraji. The show highlights the struggles the Black community faces when it comes to mental health awareness and treatment, as well as the stigmas surrounding those who attempt to get help. In its first season, Peace of Mindtackled a variety of mental health topics, including PTSD, mental breakdowns and the struggles of the Black trans community.
"[We hear], 'Boy, get over it. Man up! Tough it out, strong Black woman.' These things have been passed down, so to even talk about mental health, how do you do that when you've never talked about it? When it's been taboo?" she explained to ET. "I mean, think about what we go through as Black people. Police brutality, microaggressions, not being paid equally ... it's a lot. It's a lot to unpack, and we felt like we needed some kind of programming that you didn't have to pay for and makes you feel safe."