WASHINGTON – Actress Taraji P. Henson told the Congressional Black Caucus on Friday that the rising suicide rate among black youth needs more attention from Congress by funding programs in schools to educate African-American students about mental health and to change their perceptions that they will be stigmatized for asking for help.

Henson appeared at the second forum sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus Emergency Taskforce on Black Youth Suicide and Mental Health.  According to a report on the JAMA Network, 657 children between the ages of 5 to 11 died by suicide in the United States between 1993 and 2012. During that period, there was a “significant decline in the suicide rate among white children,” the report said.

“We’ve been taught to pray our problems away; we’ve been demonized for coming out and saying we have issues and we have trust issues,” Henson said. “I need the person sitting opposite from me when I go seek help for my mental (health) to be culturally competent. And if you’re not culturally competent, how can I trust you with my deepest secrets and my vulnerability?”

She had an unexpected supporter sitting in the first row, Charlemagne Tha God, who also is a mental health advocate. Taskforce Chair Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman D-N.J., said that the host of “The Breakfast Club” radio show knew that the Taskforce has offered to be part of the working group of medical professionals and activists the Congressional Black Caucus is creating to help put together a final report addressing the issue at the end of the year.

Henson started The Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation in 2018 in honor of her late father, who struggled with mental health issues related to his military service in the Vietnam War. Her goal is to take away the stigma surrounding mental health problems in the black community. She said that in her previous career as a substitute teacher in Crenshaw neighborhood of Los Angeles, she found black male students labeled as needing special education plans when their real issues were mental health struggles related to their after-school lives.

“I started finding out that they were going home to no parents being home,” Henson said.

Henson said Congress should lead the way in improving access to appropriate mental health care for young African Americans.

“Implement mental illness or mental health education in schools,” she said. “It needs to be a subject like sex education was or physical education, we need to talk about it. The more we talk about it, the more people will feel like they can talk about it.”

Coleman said called the rise in suicide among young blacks a crisis.

“We need to elevate the discussion, amplify the discussion so that people around the country could see what’s happening,” said Coleman.