Taraji P. Henson is opening up about her mental health.
While she’s known for playing a tough Cookie on Empire, the actress revealed in a new interview with Self that she struggles with depression and anxiety. She described her depression as a darkness that overcomes her while her anxiety causes heart palpitations, sweating, nervousness, feeling helpless and racing thoughts — and both left her feeling like she was “suffocating.”
“It’s hard to climb up out of it,” Henson, 49, admitted.
She first felt “things started to shift for me when Trayvon Martin” was murdered in 2012. The single mom’s son, Marcell Johnson, was around the same age and she started to fear for his safety.
“That's when I noticed anxiety started kicking in,” she said.
But two years ago, things amplified.
“I noticed the mood swings — first I’d be up, then I’d be down. I didn’t really want to go out in public. Almost agoraphobic like: Ah, too much to deal with. Feeling really awkward in my skin. Feeling out of sorts. And just down. Like Debbie Downer. Like a dark cloud.”
Henson added, “I’m the life of the party and when I go dark, I go dark. I don’t want to leave the house.”
While friends suggested meditation and yoga, she said her brain would still race, so she needed more help.
“I had aligned all my chakras, and I still wanted to headbutt a b****,” Henson quipped. “The therapy came into play out of necessity. It was [a] time where I was like, ‘Oh, I'm just not feeling like myself anymore,’ and my son was going through his issues with becoming a young black male in America with no dad and no grandad. It was like, ‘Okay, I'm not a professional. We both need help.” (Henson’s son’s father was murdered in 2003; her own father died in 2006.)
That led her to connect with a new therapist, recommended by her Empire co-star Gabourey Sidibe. She said her therapist, who is also African American, is trained in cultural competency and helps her process pain and grief not just as someone struggling with mental health issues, but a black woman struggling with mental health issues.
“When you find that right person, oh my God, the sky cracks open,” Henson said.
Her therapist also helped her realize that her mood swings were associated with menopause.
“I'm like, ‘Well, you are pushing 50, girl. At some point things are going to change,’” she said.
And she’s been trying to embrace her age as she approaches a new decade.
“This right knee reminds me [of my age] every time I try to do a squat, but I'm in a place where I embrace it,” she said. “It doesn't bog me down. I live. I go out. I do things that make me feel vivacious and young at heart. If I smother the little TJ inside, I'm going to stop living.”
Henson added, “Find you a group of women that are going through the same thing. Talk and laugh about it,” she says. “If you sit on that toilet and you don't flush that sh**, it's going to consume you.”
Henson also leans on fiancé Kelvin Hayden, who she says has been “very patient with me” during her personal “rewiring.”
In 2018, Henson launched the nonprofit Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation in 2018 — named after her late father, who suffered from bipolar disorder — to diminish the stigma around mental health in the black community. A lot of the organization’s work centers around young adults and finding them the right therapists.
“I hope that one day we can all be free to talk about mental health and be okay with seeking help,” she said.