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Taraji P. Henson combats stigma of mental illness: ‘Check on your strong friend’

Taraji P. Henson speaks at a Jan. 12 National Alliance on Mental Illness event in Schaumburg. Henson became a NAMI ambassador after finding her calling in the mental health arena. In September, she launched her Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation devoted to destigmatizing mental illness, particularly in the African-American community, where she describes the topic as "taboo." | Karen Kring/For the Sun-Times

Actress Taraji P. Henson evokes a roar from a crowd as soon as she’s spotted entering Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg, heading to a meet and greet with mental health advocates from across the northern, northwest and western suburbs.

Henson, the Oscar-nominated star of both small and big screen — who got her own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame last week — found her calling in the mental health arena and is now an ambassador for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

“Mental illness is tough. It’s something that people really find difficulty talking about, but it’s very real and affects a lot of us — more than we want to admit it,” said Henson, who has called Chicago her second home since taking the lead role of “Cookie” in FOX-TV’s “Empire” in 2015. Now in its 5th season, the musical drama is filmed at Cinespace Chicago.

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“NAMI does tremendous work on the ground, making sure people who suffer with mental illness feel safe somewhere, that they have somewhere to go to seek help and information, and just to know that they’re not alone. Sometimes that’s all a person needs, you know?” the actress said at the Woodfield event last month.

Currently one of Hollywood’s “it” girls, the 48-year-old actress and author — the single mom’s 2016 memoir, “Around the Way Girl,” chronicling her rise from humble beginnings in inner-city Washington, D.C., became a New York Times best-seller — launched her own mental illness support foundation in September.

Named for her idol, her late father Boris Lawrence Henson, a Vietnam War veteran who suffered mental health challenges after his tour of duty, the foundation is devoted to destigmatizing mental illness, particularly in the African-American community, where she describes the topic as “taboo.”

BEVERLY HILLS, CA – JANUARY 06: Taraji P. Henson attends the 76th Annual Golden Globe Awards at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on January 6, 2019, in Beverly Hills, California. | Photo by Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images

“In the African-American community, we don’t talk about it. So you know, with the stigma surrounding mental illness, we don’t seek help,” she said. “I started this foundation because I felt like it was important to put my celebrity and my face to a cause and a mission that’s so important, because people get overlooked. And people are in pain, and they’re afraid to talk about it.”

In the past few months, Henson — who got her screen breaks in “Baby Boy,” the 2001 film by African-American director John Singleton, and her Academy Award nomination for 2008’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” — has additionally opened up about her own mental health journey as well as her son’s.

“I think the misconception about celebrities is that, you know, because you see us on TV and we look happy, we have money, it looks like our lives are all perfect,” she said here about joining the ranks of celebrities who have openly shared mental health challenges, e.g., former Destiny’s Child singer Michelle Williams, who battles depression, and “Black-ish” actress Jenifer Lewis, with bipolar disorder.

“You gotta remember that when they yell ‘cut,’ and the camera goes away, and the crew, and the wigs, and the nails, and all of that pretty comes off, we go back to home. And sometimes at home, we’re dealing with issues just like everybody else,” she said.

“I started my foundation out of a necessity for myself and my son. We had suffered a couple traumas in our lives and needed help,” added the star of such movies as “Hustle and Flow” and “Hidden Figures,” and TV series including “The Division” and “Person of Interest.” Her new movie, “What Men Want,” opens Feb. 8.

Those traumas include the murder of her son’s father, Henson’s high-school sweetheart, when her son was 9, and the loss of her father — her rock — from liver cancer nearly three years later. She has had to seek psychiatric help for herself and her son, said Henson, who is engaged to former Chicago Bears player Kelvin Hayden.

Hayden, 35, a graduate of Chicago Public Schools’ Hubbard High, attended Joliet Junior College, then University of Illinois, before going on to play for the Indianapolis Colts, Atlanta Falcons, then the Bears until 2014.

Taraji P. Henson is presented an “honorary teacher” plaque by staff and students of South Shore International College Prep at a National Alliance of Mental Illness event supporting destigmatization of mental illness on Jan. 12 in Schaumburg. | Karen Kring/For the Sun-Times

“You know that saying, ‘Check on your strong friend?’ ” Henson asked.

“It’s very, very real. I’ve lost a lot of people who I thought was strong. They wear this cloak, and they wear this mask, because of the stigma around mental illness. And money doesn’t make it go away,” she said. “We’ve seen several celebrities take their own lives.”

Losses last year to suicide included CNN’s Anthony Bourdain, actress Margot Kidder and designer Kate Spade.

Henson’s talk here on mental health came as she was about to embark on national press rounds for her new movie; and days before a Jan. 22 Instagram post by the actress, wading into the controversy swirling around R. Kelly, put her in hot water with fans.

Henson had compared the proliferative #MuteRKelly protests in the wake of Lifetime’s damning documentary, “Surviving R. Kelly,” with the void of a #MuteWeinstein protest against fallen Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.

She was widely criticized on social media by those pointing out Weinstein, whose victims were primarily white women, has been charged with five sex crimes, while Kelly, accused of abuse and pedophilia involving African-American victims, has not been charged.

Henson quickly deleted her post, clarifying on Twitter: “LET ME BE CLEAR R. KELLY IS GUILTY AND WRONG AND SHOULD BE MUTED PERIOD!!!!!”

Ironically, her “What Men Want” co-star, Erykah Badu, had gotten into the same trouble at a Jan. 18 show at Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom by expressing unconditional love for Kelly and noting mental illness can result from being sexually assaulted as a child. The documentary indicates Kelly had been molested.

Badu asked: “What if one of the people who was assaulted by R. Kelly becomes an offender? We gonna crucify them, too?” And against a tsunami of criticism, Badu too clarified on Twitter: ” … That doesn’t mean I support your poor choices. I want healing for you and anyone you have hurt as a result of you being hurt.”

Taraji P. Henson, speaking at a Jan. 12 National Alliance on Mental Illness event in Schaumburg, said she wants to elevate mental health in the national conversation. | Karen Kring/For the Sun-Times

Henson, at the event a week earlier, said she wants to elevate mental health in the national conversation. Her foundation will provide mental health support to schools in inner cities and hopes to boost — through scholarships — the number of culturally competent service providers nationally and impact prison recidivism rates often traced to mental illness.

“I just think it’s important that we all talk about it. I mean, look at where we are today. When you turn on the news, that’s PTSD right there. I don’t care what color you are, you’ve got the government shutdown and people are hurting, you know?” she said.

“I think people feel safe when they see someone they look up to, and can go, ‘Oh wow. She’s just like me!’ We’re all humans. And we’re all in this thing called life, together. I’m trying to use my platform to do some good. If you know someone or if you are someone suffering from mental illness, just know you are not alone. There is help out there for you. And again, check on your strong friend.”